Kirby faces

Jack Kirby conveyed volumes with just the posture or facial expression of a character. For a few months in late 1971 and early 1972, his faces exhibited exquisite detail, and Mike Royer’s faithful inks permitted us to see the intricacy of Kirby’s linework.

There is a myth that an abundance of ’60s margin notes signaled an increase in Kirby’s plotting involvement. A similar misconception is that in the early Fourth World books, Kirby was just throwing characters and concepts at the wall, and finally settled in just as Royer got involved. On the contrary, Kirby was playing the long game, and the early issues of the four titles show seeds of things that wouldn’t burst into full flower for a year or more. Before attributing any shortcomings in the books to Kirby, it needs to be acknowledged that his artistic efforts lay concealed under Vince Colletta’s inks. In fact, in the years since Kirby inked his own pencils in the ’50s, very few of the inkers assigned to his work were friendly to his penciled faces, not even Joe Sinnott.

For roughly eight months, Kirby was on top of the world. Aside from the ongoing issues with Jimmy Olsen, he was in complete control of his output in a way that he hadn’t been since the fall of Mainline, and it showed in his work. In the examples that follow, it’s particularly clear in the hair and the eyes.

Mike Royer gets acquainted with the pencils: New Gods #5 and Mister Miracle #5.

Forever People #6, New Gods #6, and Jimmy Olsen #146.

The second issues of the black and white magazines, In the Days of the Mob and Spirit World.

Kirby Draws Real People.

Kirby Draws Real People Again.

Funky Flashman and Murder, Inc. were done during the same two-month cycle. I’m in no way suggesting that Kirby drawing real-life criminals inspired the content of Mister Miracle #6.

The epic achieves biblical proportions with Forever People #7 and New Gods #7..

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Scott and Barda return to Apokolips in Mister Miracle #7.

In Jimmy Olsen, Scrapper and Gabby achieve their own unique detailed style.

“The Power,” Forever People #8.

“The Death Wish of Terrible Turpin,” New Gods #8.

Kanto the Assassin debuted in Mister Miracle #7, but the book was strictly action. Kanto didn’t get his close-up until the following issue.

James Romberger: Kirby’s drawing was based on observation and feeling. Later he became a bit more simplified or one might say he began to almost parody his own style, but a lot of that developed in reaction to the inkers imposed on him. But there is a major rift and drop in the early-mid 70s and I think this came about because he was fucked so terribly—for a few years he had a hard time with it because he had been struck down at a peak of power and grace by the idiot Carmine Infantino at DC cancelling his Fourth World.

To my eye, Jack Kirby’s style experienced a reinvention before the Fourth World books were cancelled. The black and white magazine work came to an end, followed by the eighth issues of the trilogy: by production number, the sequence was Forever People 8, New Gods 8, Jimmy Olsen 148 (the last), Demon 1, Mister Miracle 8, Forever People 9, Demon 2, Kamandi 1, Mister Miracle 10, New Gods 9, Mister Miracle 9. By publication order, the final issue of Jimmy Olsen came first, followed by the eighth and ninth issues of the trilogy titles. The Demon and Kamandi were rolled out during the tenth issue cycle.

As can be seen in the examples above, Kirby was inspired and invested in all of his projects up to this point. Forever People #9, however, was both the cause and beneficiary of his new style. “The Monster in the Morgue” bears Carmine Infantino’s bootprints: Kirby had been instructed to add Deadman, a character that was not his own; he was disheartened, to put it mildly. His make-up compelled him to deliver a good story regardless of the circumstances, but the intensity was gone. Kirby’s reinvented style was more simplified and less detailed: it was on full display in that book, in the new titles, and in “The Mister Miracle to Be” (Mister Miracle #10 and subsequent issues), as well as in the final two issues each of The Forever People and The New Gods.

The other two books in the Issue 9 cycle are interesting. “Himon” in Mister Miracle #9 was the story Kirby couldn’t not tell: he had led up to it with a series of backup stories in earlier issues, and there’s evidence the story was moved up in the schedule. Knowing the implications of Infantino’s intervention, Kirby saw the writing on the wall and got the book out. It has some magnificent panels (particularly on pages 16 and 21), but very few detailed faces (Willik, below, being one close-up). Some of the facial expressions are reduced to slashes.

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Patrick Ford: There is a bit of a loss of enthusiasm at DC at the time of the cancellation of the Fourth World but in my opinion the material recovered pretty quickly and his stuff for Marvel is often brilliant.

The other casualty was Kirby’s new New Gods storyline, “The Bug,” a potential multi-parter about discrimination in the perfect society. The rooftop scenes featuring Orion, Lightray, and Eve Donner are executed with care while the bug scenes on New Genesis are all action. The final speech could be Kirby’s DC equivalent of the Silver Surfer #18 scream: perhaps this issue had been started when Infantino called with orders to insert Deadman into Forever People. In the following issue, the Bug subplot was simply left hanging.

After Eve’s speech (below), the detail in Kirby’s faces didn’t fully recover until he was reunited with Mike Royer at Marvel (after again having to mess around for nearly a year, sometimes more, with the wrong inkers).

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What Jack Kirby left unfinished was the time of peace when he was left alone to do it his way.

Kirby faces

3 thoughts on “Kirby faces

  1. James Romberger says:

    You quote me calling Infantino an “idiot,” Mike—and I think I should qualify that. I don’t think much of him as an artist and while he did bring Kirby to DC in the first place, he didn’t understand or appreciate Kirby’s brilliant career-peak efforts and worse, he rapidly began to subvert them, which I think was an idiotic mistake based on artistic jealousy and incomprehension. His cancellation of the Fourth World was also bad business, based as it supposedly was on bogus information about low sales, a faulty tallying due to the widespread fraud within the corrupt distribution system DC was subject to at that time

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    1. Thanks for the clarification, James. I hope Bob Beerbohm gets his book into print soon, at least before Mark Evanier immortalizes the “average sales” version in his Kirby biography. Joe Brancatelli and Chuck Rozanski have also written about the affidavit return fraud that led to less-than-stellar sales numbers. In this year’s SDCC Kirby Tribute Panel, Mark told Alex Ross that Kirby proposed to DC a CC Beck Shazam revival to be part of his editorial stable, but it just didn’t sell. Bob lists Shazam #1 as one of the fraud targets in part one of his Comic Book Artist article (#6).

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      1. A clarification from Bob Beerbohm (28 July 2020): Shazam #1 sold incredibly well – initially – it was HEAVILY speculated upon by many lost souls. One guy out of Utah ambushed way-laid the truck which had 22,000 copies of #1 ear-marked for Los Angeles area. He bought them all. Los Angeles main distributor got none.
        When Shazam hit the market it was already retailing at $2 for its first week or two. Then the energy died down some what. Shazam lasted almost a few dozen so it had some legs for a while.

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