Author Archives: Norris

Jack Kirby, American

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August 28th 2017 will be Jack Kirby’s 100th birthday. Clearly, a good deal will be written about this occasion. I’d like to say something about what this event means to me, having grown up in a time period that had one foot in the old-world ways and one in the new. I was born in 1952, just seven years after the end of the great war, and that conflict’s mythology loomed large in my life. I lived in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. Abe Zimmerman, the Candy Store proprietor had Dachau numbers tattooed on his forearm. Needless to say, it would be a tough sell for someone to try to convince me that the Holocaust never happened.

To us neighborhood kids, the war represented good’s conquest over ultimate evil, and Jack Kirby’s characters embodied that epic. It felt like Jack Kirby was an American in the old-school sense. Few comic book creator’s heroes felt quite so righteous and principled. The United States is a nation whose credo  was written on a plaque in 1903, inside the Statue of Liberty, which stands in New York harbor.  “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore” is part of the text on the statue’s plaque.  Kirby’s parents were just such “wretched refuse” as the poem was referring to.  They were Austrian Jewish immigrants. and Kirby was raised on Essex Street in the bustling Lower East Side of Manhattan.

When the call came in the 1940’s for America to fight the fascism fomented by a former Austrian Corporal turned dictator, Kirby went to France under the command of General George S. Patton. Kirby came to Paris as a liberator. The page from Young Romance #10 above tells the story of a soldier that could easily have been semi-autobiographical. Kirby knew well those hedge rows, ruined towns and blood-drenched fields he wrote of.

When he returned to New York, he was a vastly different man, one who had seen the face of death countless times. He was no dull-witted killer who could shrug off such experiences. Every impression burned itself on his raw artistic sensibilities. His only defense against carnage was to transform it into art.

Kirby’s Captain America was the embodiment of his creator’s righteous rage at the forces of naked savagery that the artist had endured. Here on this page from Tales of Suspense #67, we see Cap, under the insidious spell of the Red Skull in the company of a squadron of Nazis. This panel has long been one of my favorite examples of compositional Kinetic energy. Every shape making up the structure of the surrounding Nazis is designed to give Captain America forward propulsion.

In panel two, Bucky explodes from a Nazi’s grip, while dodging a burst of machine gun fire. His rage is palpable as he snatches up a weapon and returns fire. There is no clever caption that suggests his bullets are less than lethal. There would be no point in trying to tone down the savagery of Kirby’s rage, channeled through Bucky. Next, he cleverly uses a grenade to outfox another Nazi and then subdue him in hand to hand combat.

There is something primal about the pages of this series from the mid-sixties, focusing on Captain America’s wartime adventures. Seldom again would Kirby return Cap to this period. Here, by bringing his golden age hero back to the time of his inception, Kirby appears to be exorcising some of his demons. The specter of Hitler’s Nazism was the very antithesis of the 20th century American dream. Teutonic racial supremacy vs. cultural inclusion and assimilation. Never mind that Steve Rogers was the spitting image of blonde, blue eyed Aryan godhood. He’d been born stunted and frail, but the spirit of American progressiveness had made him whole and infused with indomitable power over evil. This was the symbolic America of my youth. Without generosity of spirit and the dream of justice and equality, there could be no strength to overcome adversity.

Woe to any force that would falsely usurp that cloak of righteousness to mask their true intent. The anti-life equation was always lurking in the shadows. Kirby quickly saw through the travesty that was Vietnam. He had little patience for those that betrayed the ideal. In his Kamandi series, Kirby skewered Nixon’s flawed presidency in a hilarious satire of the Watergate scandal. His most powerful works, like the Fourth World series pitted the light of compassion and reason against the will to dominate and subjugate. This was the majesty of Kirby. His spirit was one that would enliven and justify the name that would be given to those he served with, “The Greatest Generation.”

Why The fantastic Four

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Why the fantastic Four?

 

Recently, I noticed that writer and Comic book aficionado, Richard Kyle passed away on December 10th. Kyle, who coined the term “Graphic Novel,” was also responsible for inspiring Jack Kirby to write and draw the short story, “Street Code”, having offered the King a modest sum to tell a personal account from Kirby’s past. Hearing the news of Kyle’s death brought me back to an article of his that I had read in The Jack Kirby Collector#9. The article was originally published in the spring of 1967 in the seventh issue of a magazine called Fantasy Illustrated, and it appears to have no title other than “Graphic Story Review.” It is about the impact that The Fantastic Four had on Kyle’s world when it was first released in August 1961. It is a wonderful article and is extremely insightful by way of making the point of why the Kirby/Lee team of Superheroes fit so well into its time period, the 1960’s.
For decades, I’ve been trying to understand just what it was about the Fantastic Four that took such a powerful hold on my imagination. I did not discover the Fantastic Four until issue #12 in 1963. I was eleven years old and after reading several issues if the comic, I delved back, trying to obtain earlier issues. When I read issue #4, I was struck by the difference in the look and feel of the older book compared to an issue little more than year later. I chose this page from issue #4, because it displays the strong animosity between two of the team members, the Thing and the Human Torch. It is established early on in the series that the Thing is extremely angry and bitter over his monstrous physical condition and in particular, he resents the teenaged Human Torch because he sees the youth as a spoiled brat and a glory hound. In these early issues, this is a deadly serious quarrel and the intensity shows in the darkness of this page as the Thing, about to attack the boy, reverts back to his human self and then tragically becomes a monster again within a matter of seconds. This is a very emotionally dark and powerful moment for a superhero comic, and it leaves a strong impression.

Within three to four issues, the tone of the book became lighter as the group struggled to resolve its issues and gradually, a spirit of levity pervaded the stories, but never to the extent of undermining the dramatic developments that would ensue.
What gradually emerged was a species of sitcom about a dysfunctional family trying to make sense of the 1960’s, which was certainly a tumultuous period of social change and experimentation.
On April 12; 1961, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space. In May, astronaut Alan Sheppard followed him. In October, the film, West Side Story appeared on screens, dramatizing the racial disharmony between two rival gangs. The Romeo and Juliet aspect gave us hope that our humanity would overcome our differences. “We Shall Overcome” became a common sentiment of the 60’s. In November 1963, President Kennedy was assassinated and then in early 1964, the Beatles came to America. They seemed to embody a spirit of youth and exuberance that was moving over the waters.
Words like “Youthquake” became popular. Something about The Fantastic Four also felt like a fresh young treatment of the Superhero concept that was a mere quarter of a century old. Perhaps it was the teenage Human Torch, whose flame power appeared to embody emotion. Johnny Storm, the teenage Torch certainly felt like a late 50’s or early 60’s kid, with his blonde pompadour and his hot-rods. However, in 1966, in what became known as the “Galactus trilogy”, the Torch became an “experienced”mind, as he flew through some sort of hyperspace, attaining Cosmic Consciousness while traversing intergalactic doors unknown to mankind. The art of the page shows the transformation on his face and mind akin to a hallucinogenic trip. Johnny Storm along with Galactus and the Silver surfer has taken his family, The Fantastic Four into tomorrow.
Richard Kyle, in the aforementioned article, describes the Torch as, “The personification of passion and emotion.” Kyle continued. “If intellect is the source of power today, emotion will be its source tomorrow, for creativity is the product of emotional insight. Tomorrow, the creative man, the first true man, will be king. Here,-in a kid’s 12 cent comic book is his symbol: Johnny Storm, the Human Torch, ‘The man of the Day After Superman’s Tomorrow. ‘ And so, The Fantastic Four has been done ‘right’-the first comic book strip that has-and probably the last.”
Now, this was written in 1968, and a lot of comic water has flowed under the bridge, but Kyle is on to something here. As times and places go, he is certainly right about getting it right, and if Johnny Storm wasn’t the next Man of Tomorrow, The Fantastic Four surely did ‘Get Right’ the essence of a team that contained the psychic and alchemical balance that could represent the sixties as far as superheroes are concerned.

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

 

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

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.

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