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, 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’.
Jack Kirby is well-renowned for his sequential work, but it sometimes goes unmentioned that he was also an unparalleled cover designer. His covers for Marvel practically leapt off the shelf and into reader’s hands, bursting with an energy and innovation that dwarfed all competitors. I’ve looked at a LOT of Kirby covers in my life, and while I can’t come up with an absolute ranking of his best-ever Marvel covers (my opinions change moment-to-moment, depending on which series I’ve read most recently), here’s ten of my all-time favorites.
Honorable Mention: Invaders #15
A good old-fashioned fight scene, in the shadow of London Bridge and Big Ben. It’s almost a ridiculously dramatic setting, but it doesn’t matter at all, as the Jack Kirby/Joe Sinnott team turn out one of their finest latter-day collaborations, the vitality of the pencils accentuated by the polished sheen of Sinnott’s inks.
10. Fantastic Four #59
Intense waves of linework cloud around the scattered figures of the Fantastic Four, while Black Bolt lets loose destructive force from his forehead, and a city crumbles in his wake. The title, “DOOMSDAY”, is written in huge letters across the bottom, but it’s not even necessary – the art alone tells us that this isn’t the sort of comic that can be left to sit on the stands… It demands buying and reading immediately.
9. Fantastic Four #33
The color, the poses, and the fact that it’s all laid out on one of Kirby’s trademark photo collages… The looming figure in the foreground, the lopsided and off-center images of the F.F. and Sub-Mariner, the tiny army watching from afar. This is a cover that connects with the eye immediately, but also rewards closer inspection. (How on earth is The Human Torch flaming and flying underwater, anyway?)
8. Strange Tales #90
A freakish dead-eyed alien colossus tears through a crowded circus, causing all manner of chaos and confusion in his wake. Truly, monster comics from the early 60s get no better than this.
7. Sgt. Fury And His Howling Commandos #16
It’s not an action scene. It’s a snapshot of a moment when our heroes are at their lowest, their expressions and poses telling a story without the need of words. The layout is breathtaking, the long, low nazi fortress spanning the width of the cover. And the coloring: oranges, browns, and yellows with pale red accents and a deep red title across the top. It’s proof that Kirby could portray quiet moments every bit as well as furious action, and it looks like no other cover I’ve seen, before or since.
6. Journey Into Mystery #113
This portrait of Thor/Dr. Don Blake is one of Kirby’s finest figure renderings, and while that’s the part of the image that catches the eye first, the action surrounding it is equally compelling: Jane Foster reacting not to Thor’s big moment, but to the sinister Grey Gargoyle as he bounds in through the window. It’s an unusual layout for a Kirby piece, and that might be why it captures my imagination.
5. 2001 #5
I have no idea what the story is here, or who that guy is, but he’s clearly being chased by a bunch of gargoyles with laser guns. And they’re all coming straight out of ’Comicsville’, which is either a cheerfully meta-textual comment on the absurdity of the whole thing, or just a name that sounded kinda catchy. (One can never be entirely sure what’s intended to have a deeper meaning in Kirby’s comics, and what’s just another lightning flash of an idea that went straight from subconscious to paper without a second thought.)
This is Kirby toward the end of his second stint at Marvel, and like the Invaders cover (from the same year), it shows that he hadn’t lost an ounce of his ability to amaze, still turning out pictures that explode with momentum and energy, the characters bounding toward the reader like they’re trying to escape the two-dimensional confines of the printed page.
4. Strange Tales #132
The Thing looks a little off-model here, a bit squared-off and barrelchested, more like a Kirby monster from before the Marvel Age than the cobblestoned curmudgeon that one read about every month in the pages of Fantastic Four. But I don’t really mind, and the composition quickly distracts me from nit-picking: the explosion of machinery as Ben Grimm breaks free, Johnny Storm soaring in to help save the day, and a mysterious villain, his face draped in shadow, pulling a lever to set his evil plan in motion.
3. Captain America #106
There’s a lot of competition for this title, but this MIGHT be the single most action-packed Kirby cover ever. The angle is slightly skewed, the momentum is so forceful that it distorts anatomy and perspective, selling the image with sheer visceral intensity.
2. Tales To Astonish #28
In five silent panels, Jack Kirby tells a story so well that I’m not even sure I need to read what’s inside. But I will anyway, because I’m a sucker for Jekyll-and-Hyde stories. (Plus, that’s one fierce looking gorilla, and I want to see what sort of havoc he wreaks.)
1. Fantastic Four #82
Sometimes, all the elements come together perfectly. Deep, rich colors accentuate an already spectacular image; the primal power of Kirby’s composition, the intricate detailing and expressions, some absurdly exaggerated foreshortening, and Joe Sinnott’s lush inking combine to make this the number one pick of my personal top ten.