Jack Kirby is probably the single most important figure in the development of american comic books. His career spanned seven decades, and though he is best-known for his work on super-hero titles, he defied simple categorization and worked in nearly every style of comic: horror, science fiction, romance, comedy, fantasy, funny animal, crime, war, western, and probably some others that I’m forgetting.
He didn’t just define a single genre: he constantly defined (and re-defined) the entire comics medium, right up until his death in 1994. So, in honor of his 96th birthday on August 28th, we here at MTV Geek have assembled A Week Of Jack Kirby, a series of posts celebrating the life, work and inspiration of the man that Stan Lee dubbed simply ’The King’.
Today, we kick things off with Jack Kirby’s Ten Greatest Character Designs! (Well, okay… Maybe not greatest. But a completely subjective selection of incredible candidates. On another day, I could choose a completely different top ten list.)
10. The Thing
Many Kirby designs appeared fully-formed from the get-go, but the lovable brawler of the Fantastic Four took around a dozen issues to reach his familiar chiseled appearance – he started out as a lumpy, earthen mass in #1, and became a little more sculpted and defined with each successive issue. His edges became rougher, his browline extended outwards, his skin shifted from scales of clay to craggy chunks of solid rock, and his look solidified from the initial earthenware countenance into the swimtrunks-and-stone image that we know today.
9. Black Panther
The Black Panther was introduced by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in Fantastic Four #52, and was the first black superhero to appear in a mainstream comic book. That would make him worth noting all by itself, but he also possesses one of the most distinctive and elegant costumes of any comic character: a solid black suit, some thin black-on-black striping on the gloves, and a mask covering the whole head, with small pointed ears and white slits for eyes. The simplicity of the design fit perfectly with the nobility of the character, and immediately defined T’Challa as an essential figure in the rapidly expanding Marvel universe.
8. Mr. Miracle
An intergalactic refugee who came to earth, apprenticed himself to a circus escape artist, hired a dwarf as his manager, married an amazonian warrior woman, got mixed up in an eternal cosmic war between the forces of good and evil, and dresses in a costume composed entirely of primary colors. Nobody but Jack Kirby could ever dream up of a character like this, let alone give him staying power. But more that 40 years after his first appearance, Mister Miracle continues to defy expectations, beat the odds, and maintain a fiercely loyal fan following.
7. Doctor Doom
Well, what can I say about Victor von Doom that hasn’t already been said? He’s possibly the most iconic of all comic baddies, a monarch in a suit of armor and a flowing cloak who hides a scarred visage behind a mask of solid steel. He’s equal parts sorcerer and scientist, a man equally adept with black magic and advanced technology, who constantly plagues the Fantastic Four with his nefarious schemes – and then, as the ruler of a tiny European nation, uses his diplomatic immunity to sidestep any criminal charges. His arrogance and vanity are matched only by his drive for power, and the irrational hatred he feels for Reed Richards, the man he blames for disfiguring his face. He’s the quintessential tragic villain, a man who possesses great potential, but is twisted by anger and undone by his own darkest impulses.
The OTHER ultimate Kirby villain, a galactic tyrant bent on absolute destruction, a massive looming figure who shoots beams of deadly energy from his eyes, and seeks nothing less than the end of all life in the universe. Darkseid is less of a character than he is the concept of evil personified, and his design is terrifying in its very lack of personality and total functionality: a short tunic, a steel belt, featureless gloves and boots, and a cold blue helmet surrounding a face that’s carved out of stone.
Hela is the Asgardian deity of death in the Marvel Universe, and Kirby depicted her in appropriately grand fashion: a suit of deep green, trimmed in details that look both supernatural and cybernetic, topped off with an absurdly elaborate helmet of horns and tendrils. It’s an awe-inspiring and unsettling look that exudes authority, and makes one believe that she has the power to govern the afterlives of the gods themselves.
4. Fin Fang Foom
There was a period at the turn of the 1960s, right before superheroes became their stock-in-trade, when it seemed like Lee and Kirby were churning out new monsters on an hourly basis. Tales To Astonish, Tales Of Suspense, Journey Into Mystery, and Strange Tales were filled with bizarre creatures; each with unspeakable powers and named in nonsense syllables: Grogg, Groot, Grottu, Gargantus, Goom, Googam (Son Of Goom), Monsteroso, Moomba, Manoo, Droom, Orrgo The Unconquerable, Zzutak, and and endless succession of rock men from space tore through their showcase six-page stories, laid waste to nations, and ended up defeated by their own hubris (and good old fashioned human ingenuity).
But even among that endless succession of horrors, one character rose above the rest: a gargantuan green Chinese dragon in purple underpants, reawakened to threaten all of humanity. He originally appeared in Strange Tales #89, wherein he was awakened by a noble teenager, rampaged across the countryside, used the Great Wall Of China “like a gigantic bull-whip”, decimated a communist army, and then got lured back into his tomb and returned to peaceful slumber. The story was completely ridiculous, but Kirby’s art sells it perfectly, creating an ancient beastie that’s both bizarre and captivating.
3. Infinity Man, Makkari, and Bombast (THREE-WAY TIE)
Over the years, Kirby developed a lot of little quirks, shorthand features that he’d use time and again, with slight variations. And these three characters are a great example of one of my favorite Kirby ’types’, the helmeted, armored hero with a cool visor and some insane futuristic trimmings. One comes from 1971’s The Forever People, one was a cast member of Marvel’s The Eternals, and one starred in the short-lived ’Kirbyverse’ line from Topps Comics in the 1990s – and since I couldn’t choose which one I liked the most, I just decided to mention them all at once.
2. Arnim Zola
A cyborg-robot villain whose head on a TV screen in his chest, and a video camera up where his head should be, decked out in day-glo purples, yellows and oranges, and sporting a stylish loincloth emblazoned with a futuristic molecular pawnshop symbol. This is so much of what I love about Kirby – the insane maximalism. For most creators, any one of these details would be enough to define someone visually, but Kirby tossed them all into one guy without batting an eyelash (and then probably went on to create three dozen other amazing characters before lunch).
1. The Silver Surfer
And on the opposite end of the Kirby design spectrum, there’s this: the simplest, most elegant superhero of all. A silver man on a surfboard. There’s no excess details to the Surfer; there’s no fin on the board, he doesn’t have ears or toes, half the time he’s not even depicted wearing trunks. He’s simply a sleek and shining being, a completely alien form in the shape of a human, a silver beacon soaring across the sky, borne on the endless cosmic power of one man’s imagination.