Kirby Crackle

Kirby/Sinnott art, from Fantastic Four # 51 (Jun 1966), page 13, panel 2.

Before I wrap up the thread on Captain America # 201, page 12, I noticed that Harry Mendryk has a post on the evolution of Jack’s crackle. I figured I’d make a few comments here.

Here are my comments on Harry Mendryk’s the “Evolution of Kirby Krackle” article.

I think it was Stan Taylor who pointed out the crackle in the Blue Bolt story, and Kenn Thomas who provided us with the scan on Kirby-l.

I think it was also Stan Taylor who first suggested Joe Sinnott deserves some credit for helping to create Jack’s distinctive 60s crackle (I prefer “crackle” to “krackle” since the whole “k” thing tends to be overused when coming up with terms for Jack’s work).

I suspect Sinnott was the one who decided to make perfect circles for the crackle. Based on the uninked pencil scans of Jack’s art that I’ve seen, Jack did not draw perfect geometric circles — he tended to sketch them out or scribble semi-circular shapes and blobs. It was Sinnott who would use a compass or a circle template to make all the circles geometric — in fact, Joe mentioned in one interview that he’s had so much practice at it, he can draw a perfect circle without even using a template. I encourage you to try that at home and you’ll see how hard that is.

Jack probably saw this effect worked really well looking at the Sinnott-inked Fantastic Four books, and Jack probably heard the fan buzz about his cosmic crackle, so he started to use it more and more. The Kirby/Sinnott style of geometric crackle was an effect something inkers like Mike Royer also seized on in the 1970s working on Jack’s Fourth World material because it was remarkably distinctive and effective.

In the late 70s, at Marvel it seemed every Kirby page and cover had plenty of swirling crackling energy somewhere, and I recall other artists like Geroge Perez using it when he illustrated Fantastic Four with Joe Sinnott on inks. In many respects, Jack’s crackle became part of the Marvel house style.

This is one of the first comic books I remember buying off the spinner rack at the local 7-11. Plenty of Kirby/Sinnott crackle here being used by George Perez. Fantastic Four# 186 (Sep 1977) Perez/Sinnott.

Interestingly in much of Jack’s uninked pencils, his crackle doesn’t necessarily consist of perfect circles, and inkers like Colletta or D. Bruce Berry didn’t always ink them as perfect circles. But, inkers like Sinnott and Royer worked hard to make carefully-crafted black-and-white, overlapping, polka-dot spheres — which is what I think of as “Pure Kirby crackle.” Royer has mentioned Sinnott influenced his approach towards embellishing Kirby’s pencils, and without those two inkers chances are Kirby’s crackle probably would have remained looking like the energy in the “Man Who Collected Planets” image. I hope you don’t mind me using your scan here, if you do object, please let me know and I will remove it.


I think it was on the HiLobrow site for the “Kirb Your Enthusiasm” series where one of the writers called this prototype crackle “Kirby Smolder,” but I may have read that elsewhere. Maybe check out HiLobrow and see if that article is there.

Ah, here’s the article. The writer’s name is John Hilgart.

Kirb Your Enthusiasm By: John Hilgart. I pulled a few excerpts from the article and added images.

(excerpt 1)

Before the advent of Kirby’s cosmic crackle visual effect, there was the Simon & Kirby smolder. The smolder’s approach to detail was somewhere between brushy and calligraphic — imbuing shadows and organic shapes with waves of complex, immanent energy. The crackle radiated outward as particles, while the smolder was the sinister energy within. Though this style was deployed across the Simon & Kirby comics of the Fifties — including the gorgeous romance stories — its signature application was the macabre.

(excerpt 2)

As Kirby knew firsthand, the prosperity of post-war America grew out of vast fields of human corpses. In 1944, he went from drawing Captain Americacomics in New York to the battlefields of France, arriving a couple of months after D-Day. His assignment was apparently quite dangerous, advancing to the front lines to make reconnaissance sketches for the Allies. We can only imagine the scenes of decaying horror that he saw there, and Kirby’s subsequent career seems almost to be organized around finding reasons to depict the mind confronting something it cannot assimilate. The aghast face is everywhere in his work, from the supernatural and science fiction comics to the precise moment a heart breaks in a romance story. After the return to superhero comics, it begins to appear everywhere, this “Oh my fucking god!” face. In 1966, Galactus would arrive, a hungry, amoral, life-erasing personification of an indifferent universe — the existential horror of death in its purest form.

While the smolder effect continued to signify the macabre in Kirby’s later work, it was also applied to a situation that more and more seemed to concern him: human transformation. In the Sixties or Seventies, when he drew someone zapped across the universe or shifted from one state of being to another, we could expect to see their screaming, smoldering face.

From 2001 # 6 (May 1977), pg. 9. Kirby/Royer.

It’s still a form of death, or near death — the atomization of the corporeal self — but now it is also apotheosis, the self migrating to a higher plane or transforming into something new. This is perhaps Kirby finding his way past death as a horrifying absolute. If Galactus suggested there was no god (or that god was a Watcher, not an actor), Kirby’s later career has nearly everyone turning into gods. Troubled gods to be sure — just like your average teenager — but for the most part safely on the other side of death, imbued with the crackle of cosmic life. This shift reaches its conceptual and visual apotheosis in 2001, in which the black, smoldering blank of the monolith explicitly fronts the crackling beyond, in a series of obsessively repetitive narratives of death as transformation into a cosmic baby.

Image from 2001# 6, page 13, Kirby/Royer

Original art scan of 2001 # 1 (Dec 1976), page 19. Kirby/Royer.

Close-up of Kirby/Royer crackle.

As far as there not being a lot of crackle in Jack’s pre-Sinnott Marvel work, that may be because inkers like Ayers or Stone chose to simplify Jack’s cosmic vistas, portraying them in a more traditional fashion. Fantastic Four # 11 is a good random example of Ayers handling Jack’s outer space scenes.

Kirby/Ayers outer space scene from Fantastic Four # 11 (Feb 1963), page 4, panel 4.

There may have been the seeds of Jack’s crackle in the uninked pencils of this outer space scene, it’s just that Dick chose to ink it in a simple fashion — a basic black background with a few circular planets. It’s not until Joe Sinnott comes along that he decides to use a different technique.

Kirby/Sinnott outer space crackle from Fantastic Four # 52 (Jul 1966), page 3, panel 5.

In my opinion Joe Sinnott deserves some credit for helping Jack come up with his famous 1960s crackle — perfect overlapping, polka-dot, black-and-white circles used to express outer space, energy and even water; and Mike Royer deserves an honorable mention for keeping the pure crackle alive in the 70s by carefully using a circle template and his laser-like inking skills to embellish each circle and dot to perfection.

Here’s a great example of Kirby/Sinnott crackle from the Silver Surfer Graphic Novel (1978), pages 112 and 113.

Sinnott is brilliant at delineating those speed-line bursts with perfect thin-to-thick brushstrokes, and sometimes he adds a shadow to a planet making it pop off the page — every single circle is inked with care and precision. Joe’s remarkable craftsmanship is one of the most important reasons Jack’s crackle is so successful and famous.

Another interesting chapter to the evolution of Jack’s crackle is the story that initially Jack wanted the Negative Zone to be done in all-collage. Stan probably overruled this, and necessity being the mother of invention, Kirby/Sinnott turned in stunning work depicting this parallel universe full of crackle and smolder. Influenced by NASA photos of outer space, and surrealistic artists like Salvador Dali and Picasso, this is where I think pure psychedelic Kirby crackle takes form.

Salvador Dali – Metamorphosis of Narcissus


Picasso’s Guernica


Pages 5, the page 6 – 7 double-spread, and page 43, from Fantastic Four Annual # 6 (1968). Art by Jack Kirby and Joe Sinnott. This entire book is a classic.

Although you certainly see polka-dot “crackle” and all sorts of derivations of that in Jack’s pre-1960s work, I think there are 4 clear phases in terms of Jack consciously developing crackle as an integral element of his storytelling style.

Phase One: Kirby/Simon Studio Smolder: Jack used circular and semi-circular shapes to depict backgrounds and energy, inked in different ways by the various Simon/Kirby staff-inkers producing various prototype crackle effects.

Phase Two: Kirby Smolder-Crackle: This is a transition from the smolder of the Simon/Kirby days of the 40s/50s to Jack’s distinctive 1960s/70s crackle. Jack was inking his own work in the late 1950s and he started to make these circular pencil shapes symbolizing energy more geometric.

Phase Three: Kirby/Sinnott Non-Geometric Crackle: Sinnott begins to make these swirling circular shapes into black polka dots as you can see in the image at the top of this post, but they aren’t all perfect geometric circles yet and there are no white dots to provide contrast.

Phase Four: Pure Kirby/Sinnott Crackle: Joe makes each circle geometric, and carefully inks the open circles, providing stunning contrast between blacks and whites. Jack sees this effect works wonderfully well and he starts using it more and more in the mid-1960s. Jack continued to experiment with crackle througout his career.

Here’s a Kirby/Royer piece with a heavy dose of crackle from the 1980s called “Jacob and the Angel.”

You could argue there is a Phase Five called “too much crackle” in the late 70s/80s where I’ve seen some argue Jack over-used the effect, but I can’t get enough of it, so for whatever reason he started using it, I’m glad for it — Jack’s crackle is one of my favorite things about his art.

But of course you might not agree with me, and I suspect many other writers have discussed the evolution of Jack’s crackle over the years and they also will have different theories and opinions on it’s origin and evolution. One thing is for sure, at some point Jack realized the crackle worked and people loved it — so we got a heavy dose of it in many of his books. Not a great scan, but here is a random example of what I call Kirby/Sinnott crackle (since Jack and Joe’s crackle was so unique) being used to depict energy as well as water and some of the surface features of the rock Isle from Fantastic Four # 98 (May 1970), page 6.

One quick thing I’d like to contribute to the “crackle” list is what I’ll call “stretch crackle.” This is panel 3 from 2001: A Space Odyssey # 1 (Dec 1976), Kirby/Royer, page 14, panel 3. The character Decker is being taken on a mind-blowing cosmic journey and the crackle is speeding by so fast — it’s beginning to warp and stretch. 🙂

You can see some prototype stretch-crackle in the panel I showed you earlier: panel 2 from Fantastic Four Annual # 6 (1968), page 5. Kirby/Sinnott.