Kinetics is the science of motion, and Jack Kirby’s art exemplified motion. Kirby’s work exploded out of the panels and raced at breakneck speed from page to scintillating page. A consummate storyteller, Kirby evolved an illustrative process that is unmatched in graphic art and the exploration of that process is the subject of this blog.
In 1964, Marvel Comics reintroduced Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s Captain America to the world. The character was first brought back as a sort of teaser, appearing with the Human Torch in Strange Tales, but he was an imposter. Captain America was being impersonated by a criminal known as the Acrobat, and the focus was on his amazing agility.
The real deal returned from suspended animation in Avengers #4 and Kirby’s artwork again stressed the amazing gravity defying athletic feats the Captain was capable of. The immediate appeal of this particular hero was that he was obviously a mortal man with no super powers, although later we did learn that he was chemically enhanced. Apparently, Cap had developed the majority of his strength and agility through sheer will power and persistence. When Captain America was finally given his own series in Tales of Suspense #59, Jack Kirby presented us with a run of issues featuring some of the most amazing fight sequences ever seen in comics. Kirby described his approach in an interview.
“When I was a very young boy, I used to wait for three guys to pass and figure out how to beat them up. How does one guy fight three? I would do it in ‘Captain America.’ How does one guy fight ten guys? And that’s how it came out in that story. That was an element in ‘Captain America’ I felt everyone would connect with. They’d seen it in movies, felt it in their own bodies and in their own brains. Many entertained those thoughts and of course never have done anything about them.” 1
Kirby kicked of the new series showing just how well Cap would fare against such a challenge, as Captain America faced one team of villains after another in the succeeding issues.The first issue featured a gang of thugs invading the Avengers mansion when Cap is on duty. The gang leader assumes that because Captain America has no super powers he will be a pushover. This is the setup for us as well as them, because Kirby proves how wrong they are. He demonstrates just how formidable a highly trained human being can be and how exciting the spectacle can be when it is rendered by him.
As the mob first attacks in the first panel of page four, Captain America springs instantly into action, his body moving diagonally towards the right edge of the panel. His trajectory matches the movement of his figure in panel two, as he maneuvers a serving cart, racing in a downward angle to the left towards his appearance in panel three. The third panel is an amazingly complex arrangement of figures in the deep space perspective of a room. This is Kirby at his best, using the positioning of Cap’s multiple foes to best advantage. All the figures are in motion and function for the kinetic effectiveness of the panel. The three thugs in the left corner of the panel anchor Cap’s dynamic pose as he flings his shield at the armored man. The shield’s downward slanting trajectory directs the eye to the supine figure firing the pistol. The gun shot brings the reader’s eye across to page left, but the eye stops at Cap’s extended right leg and travels down to panel four.
Several of the pages in this series have a five panel arrangement with a full tier third panel. All of these shots utilize deep space perspective and multiple figures to emphasize Captain America’s hyper-extended leaping figure.
Notice that in this panel, Kirby constructs a 3D universe using the specific arrangement of Cap’s antagonists as he leaps the length of the panel. The purple clad figures create depth by their size and placement. The lines where the wall joins the ceiling serve as coordinates that show Captain America moving further into the room. This sort of attention to detail, although apparently simple in its execution, goes a long way in emphasizing dynamism.
Through the next four issues of Tales of Suspense, Kirby utilized a similar format, pitting Cap against several teams of gangsters and assassins. For example, on this page in issue #61, Cap is pinned down by two foes. With a dazzling action to action sequence of acrobatic leverage, our hero turns the tables on his assailants by neatly flipping them up and tossing them away.
Kirby’s drawings convincingly depict the weight of Cap’s attackers as they pile on top of him. The massive back of the man on the right balances Cap’s seemingly impotent flailing legs. The same attacker’s leg directs the eye to the right and the beginning of the circular motion of the two men being turned upside down. Cap’s rearing figure moves the eye to the focus of the third panel. The “Whap!” sound effect accentuates the impact of the men Cap has tossed across the length of the full tier image.
These stories in issues #59 to #62 are a wonderful lead in for the hero’s origin in issue #63. They showcase Captain America’s legendary skills in an extraordinary way. In each story, Cap’s foes would swarm over him, attempting to overpower him with sheer force of numbers. Kirby’s ingenious compositions always convincingly showcased the ingenuity of the Star Spangled hero as he maneuvered his way over, under, around and through them, as if they were tackle dummies, props and straw men. One minute they would have our hero hog tied like this.
One second later he would explode and break free. There was just no stopping Captain America, or his creator, the irrepressible Jack Kirby.
1 – VIOLA, Ken. “Jack Kirby, The Master of Comic Book Art.” The Collected Jack Kirby Collector Volume One. Ed. John MORROW. Raleigh, NC, USA: TwoMorrows Advertising, 1997. 130-135.
2 – KIRBY, Jack & LEE, Stan (story), Kirby (pencil art), Lee, (script), STONE, Chic (ink art), ROSEN, Sam (lettering), unk. (color). “Captain America”. Marvel Masterworks: Captain America, Volume One (2003), Marvel Comics Group: 35.
3 – Ibid. p 37.
4 – Ibid. SIMEK, Artie (lettering). “Break-out in Cell Block 10!”. 56.
5 – Ibid. “The Army of Assassins Strikes!”. 67.