Kirby Text: Good or Bad?

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Kirby dialogue from Eternals # 5 (Nov 1976), pg. 1

Kirby scholars, historians, fans, and critics love to argue. One of the more contentious debates tends to revolve around Jack’s text. You have one camp that wishes Stan Lee had dialogued Jack’s 70s comic books (or anyone else besides Kirby), and another camp who likes Jack’s text, because it’s Kirby’s voice and his total vision. On the Jack Kirby-l Discussion forum, I asked the members what they thought were some memorable examples of Kirby text (good or bad) so we could understand what specifically they either liked or disliked about Kirby’s comic book prose. There were a lot of great responses, but like most discussion forums the postings tend to drift all over the place, so I picked 4 of the replies that were concise, and stayed on-topic. I also did some minor editing to remove personal references and general chit-chat.

The first response came from Peter Sattler commenting on Forever People # 8 (April 1972).

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Peter Sattler: I don’t know whether it’s good or bad to say anything about two pages selected out of hundreds, but in my opinion, the FOREVER PEOPLE selection doesn’t seem particularly well “dialogued.” Or perhaps I should say, it seems as poorly (or as well) dialogued as many other overblown superhero scripts. Not much better, not much worse. Let me try to explain why I feel this way, focusing on Panels 3 and 4 in the first image. The main problem, for me, is . . . so much TALKING — that is, talking that merely explains exactly what the pictures have already “written” and shown (or, sometimes, could have shown):

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“A pistol in my plate! I suppose I don’t have to guess what you have in mind for me!”
“I’m telling you to pick up that pistol!–point it to your head!!—-and pull the trigger!!”
“Huh!! You’d kill yourself quick as a whistle if there were bullets in that gun!!”

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How many of these lines mere reiterate the image or repeat the content of the scene? Even the lines themselves seem over-written and over-expository. As noted above, we have a real failure to let the reader see or infer the action, leaving out any possibility of suspense. The phrasing, too, seems over-elaborate and repetitive, even in a short stretch:

Maybe it’s just me, but pronouns (“it”) and word choice (“loaded”) could have streamlined it. I know that comics are not film, but imagine a movie that used dialogue the way these panels do. It seems close to parodies of bad silent-film title cards (“What’s that noise?!”). But now I’m going on too long. I’ll leave out my longer comments about all the SCREAMING (“!” “!?” “!!”), or the unclear moments (Is “Huh” supposed to be a laugh? The face, which looks puzzled, doesn’t seem to match the content of the dialogue), or the clunky eye-dialect (“yerself” vs “your head”).

But for me, the strangest thing, is that it looks and reads like some other writer came in a put these words OVER and on top of the images, like he was paid by the word or felt, at every turn, “Well, we have to have he guy say SOMETHING.” Even the panels, themselves, give pride of place to the words, forcing you to “read” about an action before you see it. I think they DIMINISH the story, as much as they add to it.

It’s almost like Jack picked up some of Lee’s worst habits. (The melodrama and endless speechifying, too.) But again, let me be clear. While I don’t think this dialoguing is particularly good, I don’t think it particular BAD either — or at least not much different that so much other comic-book writing. In fact, “what to do with the words” seems to be a problem endemic to comics overall; it’s just especially apparent in superhero operas. That said, I don’t think my feeling indicate that I dislike Kirby in any important way. Other great storytellers (Eisner, e.g.) fell into the same traps. Yes, I love comics, but sometimes it’s hard.

Steven Tenerelli gives an example of what he considers great Kirby text from New Gods # 1 (1971).

Steven Tenerelli: I have translated single exclamation marks as periods – since all superhero comics ended every sentence with exclamation marks, and never used periods, a single exclamation mark acts as a de facto period. After reading superhero comics for many years, I only recently noticed that they never use periods – I was so used to just thinking of single exclamation points as periods. From New Gods #1 pages 9 & 10 (Feb 1971). Scans from the reprint published in 1984.

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THE HAND: ORION TO APOKOLIPS – THEN TO EARTH – THEN TO WAR
ORION: The moving hand appears. The Source gives us the irrevocable counsel.
HIGHFATHER: But it does not decide. The right of choice is ours. That is the Life Equation.
METRON: The Anti-Life Equation was undiscovered until these days. It means the outside control of all living thought.
HIGHFATHER: The Universe – slave or free – on Apokolips their ruler, Darkseid, has already made his choice. What shall
be yours Orion?
ORION: First to Apokolips – Then to Earth – Then to War. (EXITS)

METRON: Now wonderfully wise in the Source. Who is more ready to fight the father – than the son.
HIGHFATHER: Metron, hold your tongue. You toy with my wrath.
METRON: Did you think I didn’t know? – Orion the might – Orion the fierce – could this be one born of New Genesis?
HIGHFATHER: No, Apokolips. But it is not yet time for him to know. You shall keep the secret.

Meanwhile, Orion leaves on a journey which is to lead him to a strange destiny …
ORION: Ahead lies Apokolips – in the shadow of New Genesis. There’ll be no cheery greetings there. (this is in reference to greeting he received on previous pages when he arrived on New Genesis).
If the other side of good is evil, then surely Apokolips is the other side. Even its giant Energy PIts feed on the world itself, to gain its power and light. It is a dismal, unclean place of great, ugly houses sheltering uglier machines… Apokolips is an armed camp where those who live with weapons rule the wretches who build them. Life is evil here, and death, the great goal. All that New Genesis stands for is reversed on Apokolips.

Many wonderful literary devices: foreshadowing, alliteration, repetition for effect. Orion’s repetition of the Hand of the Source is both for dramatic emphasis, and to show his strict loyalty to the words of the Source. In just one page, Jack perfectly describes Apokolips with brevity. Metron’s, Orion’s and Highfather’s dialogue is heightened, as it should be for gods, but their way of speaking is unique to each. They speak in terse, clipped sentences, to drive the action, and to state simply the very large concepts in that they are speaking about.

Compare the terse, heightened, clipped dialogue of the gods, with the more wordy, more ordinary dialogue of the adult Newsboy Legion from Jimmy Olsen #136, pg 16 (Mar 1971).

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SCRAPPER: You may as well have it strait, kids. The original Guardian is dead. During the years we grew to manhood, we lost track of him!
BIG WORDS jr: Of course, you were all pursuing your separate careers.
GABBY: The Guardian vanished when Jim Harper was transferred to the Detective Division, in another precinct.
BIG WORDS: Not long ago, we were called to Jim Harper’s bedside. He’d been fatally wounded in an action with fleeing criminals.
GABBY jr: (Blub) Don’t tell us da rest – I’ll cry -
TOMMY jr: Wait. Before he died, Jim Harper confessed he’d been the Guardian – didn’t he?
BIG WORDS: Yes. But we just couldn’t bear to lose him. When the original Jim Harper passes on, he left behind a still-living cell-tissue sample.

Stan Taylor discusses Kirby’s conversational dialogue.

Stan Taylor: The biggest problem for me is his lack of variety. It seems that every word or utterence from a main player to the smallest of bit players is said at the same loud, forceful assertive mode. There is no modulation, even in those quiet periods between battle and among friends. Every phrase is said and presented as an utterance from God. The phrasing is usually short, with heavy bold lettering virtually shouting at the reader. No one ever whispers or talks in humourous rhymes or jaunty vocularity,everything is just so deadly serious. And the style never really changes per person.

If Kirby drew a fight involving four people just by the dialogue one could never know who said what. The heroes and the villains talk the same way. A group of heroes conversing is impossible to follow without the word balloon tails pointing to the speaker. They all use the same voice- Kirby’s voice. The only one who Kirby did attempt to give a unique voice is Darkseid. And all Kirby did was make him even more officious and louder and more philosophical. Even Kirby’s women spoke in this same loud, booming staccato style phrasing.

Kirby also could be clunky in his dialogue. The “rattling gonads” quote and the horrible Henny Youngman takeoff on Henry Kissinger. The “funky corn” phrase in Eternals. We all have our favorites.

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“Rattling gonads.” Image from Silver Star # 1 (Feb 1983). Reprinted in the Collected Jack Kirby Collector Volume # 1

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“Henny” Kissenger from Captain America # 193 (Jan 1976), pg. 23, panel 2

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“Funky corn” from Eternals # 5 (Nov 1976), pg. 1

It seemed especially grating when it appeared that Kirby was attempting youthful slang. Kirby couldn’t do slang. Even back in the forties when he tried it in Mercury. This isn’t a major criticism, many great writers suffered in finding a variety of voices, Hemingway comes to mind. So was Kirby a good writer? Of course he told his tales in a straight forward manner that the reader could easily follow and always entertained and thrilled the reader. Was he a particularly gifted dramatist? No I don’t think so. So I guess whether or not one likes Kirby’s writing depends on what factors are most important A good story well done, or a smooth and melodic vocal pattern that says nothing. I find it hard to expect both great art and great dialogue. But I do like idiosyncratic voices that can shock the listener.

Kenn Thomas gets the final word.

Kenn Thomas: Everybody’s an amateur literary critic and it’s all a matter of opinion so none of it matters. I see it all as Kirby’s voice, even the various personalities he creates that are different from his own. It’s the auteur idea, more like poetry than dramatic popular fiction that academic literary critics would just ignore anyway, unless they’re teaching the sociology of literature. I’d like to point to this portrait Kirby has of a human face comprised entirely of Kirby tech, the perfect expression of man and technology. It’s as great a literary expression as anything on this theme, but it has no words.

Here is the image Kenn is talking about — “Mechanoid” from 1976. Thanks to Rand Hoppe for providing this scan, and thanks to all the members of the Kirby-l discussion for sharing their thoughts on Kirby text.

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