California State University Northridgeâ€™s main art gallery is currently hosting the exhibition, Comic Book Apocalypse: The Graphic World of Jack Kirby. The exhibit, curated by Professor Charles Hatfield, features original art, printed comics, photographs, and more from Kirbyâ€™s entire career. Anyone who does any kind of creative work owes it to themselves to pay it a visit — not because Kirbyâ€™s contributions to the contemporary pop culture landscape canâ€™t be overstated (though they canâ€™t), but because of Kirbyâ€™s status as a too often overlooked artistic ideal.
What do you think of when you think of an artist? More left brain than right? More Type B than Type A? Perhaps even a little flakey? The popular conception of the artist is someone who is struck by inspiration, who follows their muse at all costs, who creates art as if guided by some divine hand. Itâ€™s a fun thought, but itâ€™s a gross oversimplification, and in the case of Jack Kirby, the King of Comics — the man who co-created Fantastic Four, X-Men, Hulk, Thor, Captain America, Black Panther, Silver Surfer, and more — itâ€™s an outright falsehood.
Walking through Comic Book Apocalypse, I was struck by the breadth and length of Kirbyâ€™s professional career. The exhibit — mirroring most popular appreciation of Kirby — was largely focused on The Kingâ€™s later work, turning the bulk of its gaze to 1965 and onward. Itâ€™s an understandable choice to make, as the period includes much of Kirbyâ€™s ground-breaking run on Fantastic Four, as well as more idiosyncratic works at DC and Marvel and his twin cosmic epics, the Fourth World and The Eternals.
For those who restrict their appreciation of Kirby to his later work, itâ€™s easy to view his most popular creations in isolation. To see Kirby as that mythical artist mentioned above. To envision him simply closing his eyes and summoning up the wild characters and fantastic worlds for which is work is best-remembered. Itâ€™s a viewpoint reflected in a common sentiment, one that addresses Kirbyâ€™s age at the time of his most enduring creations: “Kirby did his best work in his 40s and 50sâ€¦I still have time to make something great too!” But that sentiment, and the view on Kirby that drives it, ignores the truth.
Wisely, Hatfield, in curating Comic Book Apocalypse, also made sure to feature a healthy sampling of Kirbyâ€™s earlier work. Included in the exhibit are not only his collaborations with Captain America co-creator Joe Simon, but also his workmanlike contributions to mostly-forgotten romance, crime and drama comics. Itâ€™s true: Kirby was in his 40s when Fantastic Four #1 came out, and he was in his 50s when he began work on the four books that made up his interlocking, convention-shattering Fourth World saga. But everything about those books — everything about all of Kirbyâ€™s work — was informed by what came before. And what came before was decades of hard work.
Kirby didnâ€™t set out to change pop culture, art or even comic books. He set out wanting to draw and make a living for himself. The product of an immigrant upbringing in the notoriously rough and crowded Lower East Side of the 1920s, Kirby was a self-taught artist who pulled himself up by his bootstraps. But even once he made it, once he became an established comic book professional — and World War II veteran — that drive and work ethic never left him.
The fertile creative period of his 40s and 50s was preceded by two decades of Kirby putting his nose to the grindstone and doing the work: of busting out the pages, of hitting deadlines, of refining and learning his craft on whatever books he could land, and of continuing his autodidactism in pursuit of the fastest way to draw the best. As a result, by 1965, it wasnâ€™t unheard of for Kirby to draw five or six pages in a single day. To put that into context, the vast majority of contemporary comic book artists are unable to do that much work in a week.
Making Kirbyâ€™s speed even more impressive is that his job was far more expansive than a present-day comic book artist, who works from a full script that describes a bookâ€™s action panel-by-panel. When working with Stan Lee at Marvel, Kirby was often only given the loosest of plot ideas or outlines, which he was then expected to flesh out into a full comic. The heavy lifting that Kirby did on the writing side is clearly on display at Comic Book Apocalypse, with original Fantastic Four art that still bears the Kingâ€™s penciled notes on plot and even dialogue.
Even in 1970, when he began work on the interlocking Fourth World epic at DC, Kirbyâ€™s contract required that he draw 15 pages in a week simply to stay on schedule. And of course, Kirby didnâ€™t just hit that goal, he beat it, sometimes doing as many as 20 pages in a single week. Without a doubt, it was a workmanlike approach to making comics — an approach that is too often derided and looked down upon. But what makes Kirby truly great? Itâ€™s that this approach not only didnâ€™t hinder his artistic development, but it played an important role in creating Kirbyâ€™s iconic, inimitable style.
Kirbyâ€™s work evolved in a way that made it possible for him to draw, at his peak, five or six pages in a single day. The odd, wonky perspective, the blocky fingers, the impossible cosmic machinery, the faces that DC deemed ugly enough to have Kirbyâ€™s Superman redrawn by other artists; these were all conscious stylistic choices that grew, not out of Kirbyâ€™s desire to develop his own style, but out of his need to draw at a certain pace. This progression is on display clearly at the Comic Book Apocalypse exhibit, as you can chart Kirbyâ€™s move toward increasingly representational artwork — things look enough like what they are meant to depict that you understand them, while still veering away from how they would appear in the real world.
Kirbyâ€™s work is about as far from realism as you can get, which is likely why even to this day certain people are turned off by it. But to expect realism from Kirby is to miss the point of his oeuvre. In his workmanlike pursuit of speed and efficiency, Kirby developed a style that was able to convey the idea of a face, a chair, a car, a space-age suit of armor, a fantastical machine, or anything else he could think of, in as simple a way as possible, without losing the essence of what an image needed to communicate. Kirbyâ€™s artwork traded not in realistic depictions, but in Platonic forms that speak to a readerâ€™s lizard brain.
The French poet Charles Baudelaire said that “Inspiration comes of working every day.” Nowhere is that clearer than in the case of Jack Kirby, who sat down to work at his desk every day, becoming one of the greatest artists of the 20th century, whoseÂ impact is still felt as strongly as ever in the 21st.
Comic Book Apocalypse: The Graphic World of Jack Kirby is on display at California Statue University Northridge through October 10, 2015. For more information, visit CSUNâ€™s website.
Aubrey Sitterson is a comics writer and would love to talk your ear off about how great Kirbyâ€™s Fourth World is. Find him on Twitter or visit his website for more information.