Rat’s Island

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Kamandi Rats Island

In comics, Jack Kirby is usually thought of primarily as an artist. This is mostly because of the work that did in the 60’s with Stan Lee and Marvel. Lee’s genius was for promotion, and while he helped put Marvel on the map and displayed his, Kirby’s and others names prominently on the work, he also assured that posterity would see him as primary writer and architect of the Marvel Universe and see Kirby merely as someone who interpreted Lee’s writing and ideas. Based on seeing Kirby’s margin notes on his original art, we now know that this was not the case. In fact, the opposite was true. Lee was the interpreter, putting his words in Kirby character’s mouths. Not only did Kirby usually plot the books as he drew them, he also gave verbal guidelines as to the character’s intent as well as dialog suggestions to the scripter. Lee’s scripts were often clever, with a bow to the hip and the modern, and readers responded well, feeling part of the club of true believers.

Still, for me, the most important factor of storytelling is characterization. Kirby’s characters are always complete, essentially and physically. In other words, Kirby understood fundamentally what defines an individual, and he used that package of personality to express an aspect of human nature in the service of telling a story. For instance, in Kamandi, Kirby takes full advantage of the specific animal nature of his animal characters. They become archetypes of people who embody those characteristics.

This Page from Kamandi #2 above has always been one of my favorite Kirby spreads because it’s a real New York image, showing the Rats finally taking over the town.

Throughout the series, Kirby hits the nail on the head with the anthropomorphic characteristics of his animals. They all basically behave like humans, but they also possess qualities of their specific animal natures. For instance, rats are vermin, scavengers, sly and shifty.  In Kamandi’s world, the rats are hijackers, stealing the spoils of others work.

Tigers, like the charismatic Caesar and his son Prince Tuftan shown on this page from Kamandi #1 below are the well-conditioned and highly trained Roman hordes. Gorillas are crude and bombastic and they live in what once was Las Vegas.

This is merely an extreme example of what Kirby has done consistently as a storyteller during his entire career. Kirby’s characters are always sharply delineated and have powerful personas and clear intention in service of the story and its message. Kirby was a keen observer of human nature. Living in the bustle of Essex Street, he was acclimated to the chemistry of masses of people. He became adept at breaking down human nature to its essences. Some of his best work was with teams and gangs, often of children like the ones that he ran with through the streets of lower Manhattan. With his focus on group interaction, relationship was always primary.

Arguably his most celebrated, influential and iconic team is The Fantastic Four. It is often noted that the Individual characteristics of that group are Elementals, whose nature and specific powers are based on Earth, Air, Water and Fire. The dynamic clash and synthesis of their disparate personalities gave the stories depth and dimension. Beginning with the fourth issue and the reintroduction of the Submariner, The Fantastic Four became a showcase for the introduction of scores of characters that would interact with our heroes and then often spin off into their own series. Dealing with relationships was what Kirby did best, and this can be seen in nearly everything Kirby worked on, from The Fantastic Four to Kamandi.

Kamandi 1 2

 

Boys Ranch spread

Kirby Tableau

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Black Panther spreadKirby tableau

Kirby’s most exciting full panel or double page spreads can best be described as tableaux. A tableau is defined as a picturesque grouping of persons or objects or a striking scene. This definition may sound rather tame when applied to Jack Kirby, but let us think about precisely what it means. Composition, or the arrangement of persons or objects is essentially what makes a picture a work of art. Kirby, as I continually stress understood the process instinctively and intuitively, but also worked very hard to perfect the art/science of composition.
Usually in comic art, the central image is heroic and dynamic as well as positive and propulsive. In the case of this Black Panther page above, it is the left to right leaping form of the Panther. It is interesting to note that although this figure is obviously leaping down from above, it is tilted at a diagonally upward angle. It is the direction of the Panther’s thigh and the powerful wedge of the kneecap that give the body weight and downward momentum.
Then, we have the central log structure that zooms diagonally upward also from the left side, supporting and accentuating the Panther’s momentum forward.
The  shape of the circular arch above his butt gives the Panther a swooping trajectory. The tumbling red loin clothed figure below him also gives the illusion that the Panther will drop to the ground. The ladders and smaller log structure to the left that brings the eye to the lower speaking figure also serve the same purpose.

The second example below is one of Kirby’s best-known two page spreads, from Boy’s Ranch #3 dated February 1951. In this swirling melee, figures are punching, leaping and climbing around in Kirby’s classic Big O composition. Some sort of bold-faced title type often starts the motion on a splash page, and in this case, the words. “Social Night in Town” bring the eye to the window on the left and then down to the figure swinging a bottle. Strikingly, the reader’s eye can either travel to the gray ten gallon hat-wearing figure of “Wabash” wrapped around a pillar in the center. Then the eye will move to the blonde “Angel” figure and will continue to move downward rightward and around and back again to the left. The lower central figure in blue that is swinging his fists acts as an anchor for the bottom of the panel regardless which direction the eye travels. Alternatively, the eye can still start with the bottle swinging geezer and then it can move down to the piano player and rightward to that blue figure and then up and around again, following the motion of the green-shirted man lifting his adversary above his head. Or conversely, the eye can follow the bearded geezer’s bottle and then follow the upward flying blue figure towards Wabash as first suggested. Either way, the anchor of the lower punching blue suited figure will keep the flow going.
Objects and details such as the midair chair and the precise position of the gray hat at bottom left also serve the keep the circular motion going. This page is one of the most potent examples of Kirby’s compositional genius because it is chock full of detail, and there are no randomly placed objects. Every thing here serves a visual purpose. Because Kirby is master of the Tableau, he knows that all the elements that make up the composition should be part of a greater design.

Boys Ranch spread

Cap#7 Scales #1&2

Composition…Composition

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Captain America Skulls men

Well, It’s been a while since I posted last and I had to give some thought to what I would focus on this time. The thing about Kirby that always stands out is … Composition. When I was a lad, attending the High School of Music & Art in NYC, my teacher would always use that word, and being young and full of myself and thinking that I already knew everything, I would be dismissive. “What are these fools going on about?” I thought. “You just do it! You don’t sit down and plan a composition. That’s phony.”
But looking at the work that I did even back then, I realized that I must have intuitively absorbed the best aspects of artists that I had admired. Artists like Kirby, N.C. Wyeth, Tiepolo and Frank Frazetta. My best stuff had good composition, without my even realizing that I had internalized those concepts that allowed me to compose well.
This page, from Captain America #112 is a perfect example of Kirby using composition about as effectively as it is possible to do. Nearly every aspect and detail on this page brings the viewers eye from point to point and exactly where Kirby wants it to go.
What is most notable about this page is that it consists of two very strong tableau panels on top of one another and yet they work together as a single strong composition as well as individual pieces. Each has the big O circular composition and yet there is a larger O made by the two panels together.
Notice that the eye enters the page with the man in blue whipping a white sash on the left of panel one. The swirl of his sash emphasizes the rightward momentum toward the man in the wheelchair and travels around the green suited man and then to the naked torso of the wrestler who reaches for Cap’s shield. This motion brings the eye directly to Captain America. The man with the steel fist and the Asian pointing his gun reinforce Cap’s centrality in the composition. The eye must fall finally on him.
However, those lower two figures also function to bring the eye into the lower panel. The diagonal gesture of the steel armored fist in the upper panel emphasizes the sweep of Cap’s fist slamming into the wrestler in the lower. Of course, the sweep of Cap’s blow, among other gestures and objects creates the circularity of the entire page’s composition.
Kirby had been excelling at this sort of thing for decades. Here’s a double splash panel spread from Captain America #7 below, showing the use of a profusion of circles and general circular movement throughout. At the center of the page is a sort of circus wheel with heads attached to it. This central shape sets the tone of the page and keeps the reader’s eye moving.
The eye sweeps from the violinist towards the lower right and around the circular panels composed of musical notes, up and around Bucky’s bound figure and over to the leaping Captain America. His torqued angle keeps the circle going back to the left. This is the use of composition at its finest.

Cap#7 Scales #1&2

 

Midnight Monsters

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JIM 79 Midnight Mon splash

It’s interesting to study the period when Kirby and Lee had just started reintroducing superheroes into the lineup of what was to be published for the fledgling Marvel line. At that point, Kirby was still crafting the lead story in a series of monster comics. Such an example in the April 1962 issue of Journey Into Mystery #79 was entitled The Midnight Monster.

 

JIM 79 Midnight Mon 3

The main character in this story bears more than a passing resemblance to The Incredible Hulk, whose first issue appeared a few scant months later. Note in particular the similarity in the transformation scenes of the two comics, appearing on page five of the Hulk and page three of “The Midnight Monster”, wherein we see a scientist morphing into a strange and frightening creature. Notice also also that in the very beginning of the series, Bruce Banner turned into The Hulk when the sun went down, a sort of Midnight Monster himself.

Hulk 1 pg6

 Many people see this Midnight Monster story as a Hulk prototype, and also see it as strong evidence that Kirby’s eclectic creativity was the primary force behind the profusion of characters that flowed from Marvel in a matter of months in the early 1960’s. Kirby is such a powerful visceral and visual storyteller, that his spirit infuses the narrative with his essence. In most cases, it is not the concept that is important, it is the style and vitality of the creator that makes the character come alive for the reader.

 

We also have compelling evidence of Kirby’s initiating the creative process nearly this early in the torn pages of a  Hulk story, possibly intended for Issues three or four, in a period where the Hulk still has some sort of psychic connection to Rick Jones. The pages in question, such as the pencilled one below were brought by Kirby to Lee’s office for approval, and have Lee’s notes written on them as though the two were discussing the dialoging before the communication broke down. It was reported that Kirby tore the pages in half and threw them in the trash in anger after Lee rejected them.

 

Hulk page rejected 12

In a note written by Kirby that was used as evidence in the recent (and resolved) legal action between Disney/Marvel and the Kirby heirs, the King stated that  he had created the Hulk which was a spin- off of a single story that he did for Marvel. This story, “the Midnight Monster” may very well be the story he refers to. The characters in both tales are infused with a similar menace and with an old-world gothic aura that is so much a part of Kirby as to be an indelible signature.

Animated Animals

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Kamandi 1 cover

Let us focus on Kamandi, the longest running series that Kirby produced for DC Comics in the 1970’s. Kamandi was a very entertaining and imaginative run of comics and somewhat Swiftian in its use of satire. This combination of fun and intelligence was the reason that it lasted as long as it did.

As most people know, this concept was Kirby’s riff on Planet of the Apes, and the cover above with its half-sunken Statue of Liberty certainly conjures that film. This is a powerful image, with the Empire State Building as the point from where the figure of Kamandi emerges, and Lady Liberty’s tilted stance gives that figure diagonal and forward trajectory as he resolutely paddles his raft in our direction.

Kamandi 1 2

Kirby is still at the height of his powers as he gives us this gem of a composition above, on panel 5 of page 12 of the first issue, as Kamandi is carried along by a tiger on horseback. The strategic placement of riders gives maximum momentum to the lead horse carrying Kamandi. The amazing this is that despite the fact that the eye is moved from left to right to emphasize the direction of the action, there is still a circular sweep that brings the eye back around. This way you first see the tiger known as Caesar’s exhortation to charge and then the other riders yell of victory.

Kamandi 1 3

On the following page above, we see the leopards fleeing towards us as Caesar charges forward. The challenge here is for Kirby to create his usual forced perspective magic. He succeeds by using the slight diagonal of the horse’s position reinforced by the gun-weilding leopards angle, the fallen leopard’s raised arm, the leg in the lower right quadrant and the explosion at upper right that throws force lines rightward and upward. Even the blades of grass at the bottom of the panel serve the same purpose, to move the rider out of the panel and in your face.

Kirby delighted in running these creatures through their paces and as a result, Kamandi was one the most playful and animated series that he produced.

RAwhide The Bat

Creating Believable Worlds

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Odin enthrponedWhen a writer or artist crafts a story, it is imperative that he or she properly sets the stage by creating a believable world for their characters to inhabit. One of the things that impressed me about Jack Kirby from the start was his ability to depict a realistic setting with just a few strategically placed objects and figures. Kirby is rightly famous for creating a plethora of amazing fantasy worlds such as Thor’s homeland Asgard. This deceptively simple panel instantly establishes Odin’s regal prominence as well as the stately magnificence of Asgard with just a few shapes. The arch above Odin’s head serves not only as an architectural flourish but also frames the figure while sweeping the reader’s eye from left to right, counterbalancing the curvature of the monarch’s throne. The buildings on the right keep the eye from leaving the page but also contribute to the sense of majesty in the composition, as does the globe and harp that the musician is holding.

 

Fury 1 splash

 
The second image above is from Sgt. Fury #1, and perfectly establishes the tableau of men at war. While a modern comic might show a group of steroid fed musclemen grimacing at the camera and showing how macho they can be, the Howling Commandos are in individual action and each occupy their own identity in a personal space/time continuum. Therefore, the reader actually has a sense of time passing as he or she parses the frame from left to right. The buildings receding into the background not only give us a sense of the specific environment but also contribute to that sense of time passing with motion in space. The placements of the figures within the coordinate grid of the structure reinforce that sense of space/time. Notice also that the Howlers move from left to right and then diagonally towards the explosion, intensifying it as the focus of the composition.

 

RAwhide The Bat

The final page above is from Rawhide Kid #25. The scene appears to be set at dusk, with the eerie gaslight cast at upper left, and the general ambiance is the paranoia besetting a provincial Western town. This sense of dread is also created by the hemmed in composition of buildings crowded together and figures shrinking back in fear. Given the story’s title, one expects to see a bat swoop down into the next panel, but sadly the foreshadowing of the splash panel is the most ominous and dramatic moment in a rather lackluster tale.
Although Kirby is known best for his dynamic figures, one of the things that make him a master storyteller is his ability to create believable settings for his tales to unfold within. Always conscious of this necessity, Kirby knew just how little or how much information to include not only to propel the story but to create the desired ambiance.

The King Victorious

Thing triumphantFor this blog entry, I’d just like to celebrate the Kirby family’s recent moment of victory. This might not be a result that will please everyone, but it’s a pretty darned good start. Disney/Marvel will acknowledge (to whatever extent) Kirby’s creative contributions to Marvel and the King’s family will be financially compensated. (to whatever extent.)

In this spirit, I would like to feature some images that show Kirby as the warrior that he was, and show him victorious over whatever opponent he was facing. There’s also a bit of rage at work here. This would be symbolic of Kirby’s rage and frustration with fairly standard corporate procedure, as well as my own rage with the same forces at work in our society. Kirby’s victory wasn’t easily won. Marvel/Disney did not do this out of generosity. They did it to avoid more possible trouble for themselves. They took what they saw as an acceptable hit to avoid an even greater potential hit.

The second image, The Rawhide Kid is one of my favorites, cause it’s a victory by the poor little outlaw guy over the rich bully.

Artists and other creative have often gotten a raw deal, so let us rage together, shall we?

 

 

 

3 - Rawhide Kid 31

2-Cap Batroc

In my last post, I discussed one of the first Kirby comics that changed my view of comic storytelling and essentially how a comic book should be done. This was of course The Incredible Hulk #1 with a cover date of May 1962. I was age nine going on ten. It appears that 1962 was the year that I discovered how awesome Kirby’s storytelling skills were, because that summer I stumbled upon the second comic that sealed my fate as a Kirby convert. This was Rawhide Kid #30 with a cover date of Oct 1960, probably appearing sometime in July.
Rawhide Kid #30 upside

Page four was the thing that settled it for me. First, the intricately constructed second panel with an overhead shot of the Kid surrounded by attackers impressed me with its composition. On that same page was the absurd spectacle of a man getting his pants shot down around his knees. Finally, there was the nonsensical wonderment of panel five, where the Kid, standing on his head blows the heels off the boots of an escaping antagonist.
Rawhide Kid was one of those comic strips where the protagonist invariably found himself outgunned and outnumbered in general. As was often the case, the Kid had to defend himself with his fists as well as his guns against multiple opponents, and Kirby gave the reader many examples of his hero’s ingenuity while doing so.

In the third story of this same issue, the Kid sparks a brawl by riding into town and vainly attempting to mind his own business. Instead, he sets off a battle that can compare favorably in animated wackiness to the best Looney Toons segment.

 

 

 

Rawhide Kid Railtown

 

Above on page three of the Story “Riot in Railtown”, we see the Kid on the floor, and then jackknifing upward he sends his assailants flying. Next, on page four below we see the ensuing melee particularly well represented in the complex mass of entwined figures in panel two. Then, again hilariously in panel three we see a man’s  slightly bowed but upright figure propelled through a window, accompanied by the wonderful sound effect, “Poinnng!”

 

Rawhide Kid Railtown 2

This is great stuff, enough to get a ten year old to embark on a lifelong appreciation of the singular artistic excellence of one man, the King of comics.

All images from Rawhide Kid #30
Jack Kirby, Dick Ayers
Text by Stan Lee

 

The Hulk-My Introduction to Kirby

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For this summer entry, I am re-editing a post from last fall, because I recently acquired some actual scans from Hulk #1 to use in place of the Masterworks book versions. Since this particular book had such a profound impact on my emerging appreciation of Kirby’s art, I thought that I would re-present the post with some additions and revisions. Crucially, The Masterworks books were re-colored, in an attempt to make the art look more sophisticated, but for me a good portion of the visceral power came from the stark simplicity of the coloration, which was essentially done that way to save money. That crudeness became a part of my vital memory of the initial impact of the comic.

I grew up in the New York City borough of the Bronx during the late 1950’s. The area was relatively placid and featured a quaint array of candy stores and soda fountain shops with racks of comic books. America was gradually emerging from the grip of Cold War paranoia, and much of the cultural zeitgeist was focused on film and literature featuring intergalactic alien invaders and various kinds of monsters ranging from huge Dinosaurs to Zombies, Ghouls and vampires. At Atlas Comics, which would eventually become Marvel, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko were churning out stories showcasing Comics Code friendly versions of such creatures, some of which the ten-year old mini-me would purchase in pursuit of amusement.

Hulk #1 lo-rez Kujaw

One day, after guzzling an “Egg Cream” at the soda fountain counter, I began perusing the comic book racks. My attention was grabbed by a heavy three dimensional block lettered title reading, The Incredible Hulk. “What the hell was this?” I wondered. Taking the book off the rack, I was captivated by the massive Frankenstein-like creature on the cover, as well as its profusion of word balloons. I was irresistibly compelled to take this comic home. Reading it, I was struck by the drama of the story, which as a developing artist myself, I immediately realized was created by the artist’s pacing. Having read several of this company’s other titles, I was becoming more familiar with  Jack Kirby.

In the first issue of the Hulk, there were several dramatic scenes where the hapless Dr. Bruce Banner, as a result of his exposure to nuclear radiation was transformed by moonlight into a menacing monster possessing inhuman strength.

Hulk 1 pg6

In the first such sequence on page 5 above, we see the disconsolate Banner sitting on a cot with head in hands. As he stands in panel two, we see the full moon juxtaposed behind his head. Next is the middle three-panel transition in the last of which we do not see Banner’s face, so that when he rises to his full height, we are taken aback by his grim gray visage as well as ominous drama of his posture. Kirby is an artist sometimes criticized for his non -strict adherence to the laws of anatomy, but here we see the King as usual using the body’s structure to its best advantage. Emphasizing the character’s menace, Kirby presents the monster’s massive shoulder and arm to the viewer, and then in a follow through motion in the next panel, shows it sweeping the helpless boy aside with that arm.

Transitions mark this particular comic, and Kirby exults in performing them. The book is fraught with the conventions of contemporary horror films, and upon reading it, I recognized that the moon through the window on page five reminded me then of the 1961 Hammer film Curse of the Werewolf, starring the young Oliver Reed, which was then one of my favorite of the genre.

Hulk 1 pg 11

On page 11 above, as the Hulk threatens the teenage Rick Jones, the sun begins to rise and the boy is saved by the creature’s timely return to human form. Observe the change in the position of hands from the third to the sixth panel, as the Hulk first begins to gesture towards Jones who raises his own hands to fend off the creature. The Hulk then reaches up to clutch his own throat and finally in the sixth panel gazes down at his humanized fingers in relief that he is normal again.

Later in the story, on page 14 we see Banner in the three panel lower tier, horrified by his pending transformation, and the drama of his terror is conveyed by the transition of the shadows on his face as afternoon turns to dusk

Hulk 1 pg 14

Finally, in one of the most dramatic sequences on page 18 below, Banner is driving and we see the transformation solely in a close cropping of his hands in the customary three panels, holding the steering wheel in the first, and then letting go of it. Kirby has always insisted that hands are are crucial tool for conveying emotion and he often uses a close cropped focus solely on them to elicit drama.

Hulk 1 pg 18

In the third panel, his hands, having released the wheel clench grotesquely and we see only the vehicle crashing in panel four, followed by the wonderfully sinister close-up image of the Hulk’s head and hands rising from the wreckage.

I followed the Hulk through issue #5 and was disappointed that Steve Ditko had taken over the artwork in issue #6. As much as I liked his work I did not feel his style fit the series. Then in that same month I chanced to notice a comic featuring the Hulk as a guest star. The Fantastic Four #12 was the first issue of that comic I’d ever seen. The cover was awesome, foreshadowing drama that unfortunately would not be realized inside the book. We see the Fantastic Four and the Hulk on either side of a foreboding cave formation. The Four are approaching the viewer as the Hulk ominously stands in wait for them. There was a scene like this in the comic, but the result of the confrontation was anti-climactic, not living up to the build-up that the story had created.

Fantastic Four #12 cover

 

Still, I found the comic irresistible. This was the beginning of a youthful obsession. The Hulk was cancelled with the sixth issue, but it no longer mattered. I was hooked on the Worlds Greatest Comic Magazine and there was no going back. For the next eight years, I simply could not get enough of the Fantastic Four, and Jack Kirby had begun to leave a mark on my psyche that endures powerfully to this day.

Image 1-The Incredible Hulk cover- art-Jack Kirby, dialog-Stan Lee, restoration by Henry Kujawa

Images 2-5 Incredible Hulk #1- Jack Kirby, Paul Reinman, dialog by Stan Lee  Scans courtesy of Rare Comics of Long island

Image 6-Fantastic Four #12-Jack Kirby, Dick Ayers- dialog by Stan Lee

 

 

The Red Skull’s Anatomy Lesson

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The Red Skull is one of comicdom’s most potent villains. Sinister yet vaguely comical, the character was introduced in Captain America’s first issue in 1941 and has endured for more than sixty years. When the Red Skull was reintroduced to 1960’s Marvel readers, the comics code was still in full swing, although waning slightly in power. Still, the Skull had to be re-drawn to diminish his fearsome visage. Jack Kirby made the villain somewhat less frightening by making his fleshless teeth less prominent.

Red Skull Cap 3

 

When Marvel reprinted 1940’s Captain America episodes in a magazine called Fantasy Masterpieces, it featured two tales from issue #3. The Skull actually appeared in the issue’s first story, but one can only surmise that it was deemed unacceptable. The splash panel from that story, shown above was a grisly scene that would not have passed through code inspection. Not only was the Red Skull’s leering visage prominent, there were also two corpses dressed in our heroes’ costumes hanging by their necks.

Kirb Kin Skull #1

Marvel eventually did print a Red Skull appearance from Captain America #7 and the villain’s face was redrawn awkwardly by someone other than Kirby, which had the comical effect of making him look more like the Red Frog. Here is the wonderful, original version of the splash from the story above. I don’t have a copy of the reprint and after all, it would be a shame to post it instead of this grotesque beauty.

This Captain America/ Red Skull story from Tales of Suspense #81 show’s the fiendish Nazi at the top of his game, having acquired a potent weapon known as the Cosmic Cube. This magnificent Kirby splash page, deftly inked by Frank Giacoia shows Captain America in all his dynamism and the Red Skull in all of his fearsome menace. In this composition, the eye first makes contact with the cube, travels down the Red Skull’s arm and back up and rightward from his head to Cap’s charging figure. Cap’s arm and the force lines bring us back to the Cosmic Cube.

Red Skull tos 81 1

On the following page below, Cap jackknifes into the Skull’s slim, nimble and rubbery body. His trajectory is a perfectly placed triangular wedge that offsets the Skull’s twisted unbalance. The story is from what many consider to be the height of Kirby and Lee’s creative arc. Dated September 1966, the issue would have occurred in the same period that the team was doing the Fantastic Four run from issues 48-60, unquestionably a peak of creative brilliance. Good to see the Red Skull have a piece of that glory. By the way, the Cosmic Cube seems to have made it into the modern film versions of Captain America’s saga. It is known as the Tesseract.

Red Skull tos 81