Monthly Archives: July 2011

Golden Age Captain Returns


With Captain America finally coming to the silver screen and being given the respectful treatment that he is due, including an origin set in the 1940’s, it seems apt to discuss the Captain as he was actually drawn and inked during that period. One of the best things about the film was the way that Cap was presented. Actor Chris Evans does a great job at being humble and wholesome, which is the way the character should be. “I’m just a kid from Brooklyn!” he says, when the Red Skull asks him what makes him so special.

Secondly, and perhaps even more crucial, because  the scenes were shot for 3D viewing, the action comes from the inside of the screen out. This is of course perfect for a project based on a Kirby comic, because that’s what the King did best. The idea was always to keep the action coming in your face. Scenes like the runaway train, motorcycle chases and any fight scene always had that momentum. Circular tunnels or a sequence of girders were often used compositionally in a way to accentuate the perspective so that the feeling of acceleration outwards was present; something that Kirby often did with his comics. An early example of this is in the last panel of the page below from Captain America #8 circa 1941, where Kirby uses the arches of the castle’s ceiling to suggest a depth of field from which figures emerge.

When Jack Kirby and Joe Simon presented Captain America to the world, Kirby was far too busy to do much more than the splash pages for the stories and generally rough drawings for the main body of the stories. The duo employed a stable of competent artists to finish and finally ink their production pieces. Two of the most competent artists thus employed were Al Avison and Syd Shores. This particular page, reprinted as a faint background image behind a photograph was my first exposure to golden age Kirby. The image was used in a 1964 issue of Screen Thrills Illustrated, showcasing the Captain America movie serial. I was fascinated by the vague artwork below the photo of the screen Cap who was pointing his incongruous revolver at some target outside the frame. It seemed like a window into a mist shrouded past that I couldn’t quite reach.

Most of the drawing here was clearly done by Kirby, but the inking was by Al Avison, who took over penciling chores from Kirby when S&K left Marvel. In the late 1960’s, Syd Shores returned to Marvel to ink Kirby’s Captain America. Shores had inked Kirby in 1941, Avison in 1942, and took over the pencilling  chores from him in Captain America #20. Shores adopted some of Avison’s stylistic quirks such as the latter’s uniquely bulbous rendering of kneecaps. Shores’ 1960’s work was so clearly retro that it stood out markedly from Kirby’s more conventional inkers, such as Chic Stone and Frank Giacoia. Recently, Rand Hoppe posted a series of Kirby’s Captain America pages inked by Shores, along with the original pencils to allow for a fascinating comparison. Few inkers have been allowed the degree of latitude that Shores has here. He had obviously been told that the retro 1940’s feel of the style was desirable and he pulled no punches with his embellishments.

First, observe the original pencils of this opening splash page above, as Captain America explodes forward, bashing opponents with his shield and the sweep of his right arm. Kirby’s pencils are tight. He spots his blacks and leaves very little room for interpretation, unless one chooses to deliberately ignore his line’s intent.

The first thing we notice is that Shores alters Cap’s face, making it rounder, yet also more elongated and somewhat devoid of the grim purpose in the expression in Kirby’s pencils. The face very much resembles the way Shores drew and inked Captain America in the 1940’s. As many inkers have a tendency to do, Shores rounds out the angles of Kirby’s art. This is readily apparent in Cap’s right kneecap, which is actually a signature of Shores’ style. This was as I mentioned earlier a trait that he seems to have picked up from his period of inking Al Avison on Captain America.

We can also notice a very nice feathering technique around Cap’s musculature and the fact that Shores’ shadows are heavier, such as the total blacking out of the area of Cap’s groin and upper left thigh. Shores also rounds the hands of the assailants, giving them nails and making them more anatomically accurate. The raised right hand of the thug on the left is particularly nice.

On this flat out action sequence below, we can observe many more interesting details. If we look at the pencils, we see that Kirby has done a fair share of black spotting, but his lines are not extremely tight. It is a nearly complete pencil job, but it suggests that certain areas may need finish.

The first inked panel is gorgeous, as Captain America slams into a gang of soldiers. Shores does a nice job punching up the crease lines in the various uniforms. Panel two is a different story, as in my opinion the inker goes a trifle to heavy on the blacks. This is perhaps Shores’ most pronounced weakness, and in many instances it is his unawareness of how the art will eventually reproduce that is a problem. For example, the adversary that is being hit by Cap’s shield in panel three is inked beautifully, with fine delicate feathering on his contorted face.

The problem is that when this line-work is reduced and colored for the printed comic, it has a tendency to become blurred.  Shores also has a tendency to make the villains’ faces even more grotesque. The shield struck soldier in panel three almost looks like a stereotypical caricature of an Asian rather than a Nazi.

What makes this third panel so wonderful compositionally is that the curve of Cap’s shield picks up the sweep of the force lines in panel two, making the blow’s impact more powerful.

Panel four works well, but five is again a bit heavy on detail. Shores adds some unnecessary blacks to Cap’s shoulders and botches the strong black spotting that Kirby has placed in the rocks behind the Nazi’s shoulder.

Through the years, I’ve observed that reactions to Syd Shores’ inking of Kirby vary widely. Some enjoy the retro flavor of his style, while others find it heavy handed and intrusive. I for one enjoy the opportunity to see Kirby rendered by someone that gives his work that flavor of a bygone golden age. Whatever problems I have with Shores’ technique are offset by my enjoyment of his unique style

Image 1-Captain America #8  Joe Simon and Jack Kirby

Image 2- Captain America #101, pencils Jack Kirby

Image 3-Captain America #101 inked and colored, Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Syd Shores

Image 4-Captain America #101, pencils, Jack Kirby

Image 5-Captain America #101, inked, Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Syd Shores

Supernatural Origins and Transformations


Like many comic book artists, Jack Kirby was fascinated by supernatural power. Of course much of this preoccupation would derive from the comic reading market that demanded heroes with super powers.  Kirby was fascinated by science fact as well as science fiction, and would scour both in search of ideas. Early in his career, Kirby, with Joe Simon would develop characters that possessed extraordinary attributes, such as Blue Bolt and the Vision. Blue Bolt possessed powers that were related to ideas on the forefront of the science of atomic energy in the late 1930’s, while the Vision’s powers were pure magic.

Left to his own devices, Kirby would often tend to focus more on heroes who were naturally strong and acrobatic. Even Captain America, who received Professor Reinstein’s super serum, was essentially just an exceptional athlete. In 1954, Simon & Kirby’s Crestwood publications introduced Fighting American. The character had a fairly unique origin, in that his soul had been transferred from his own body into that of his revitalized brother. Although not unusual for a comic book character, the idea of the transference of a life force still conjured notions of a supernatural world somewhat resembling existing esoteric religious beliefs.

When called upon to depict such an occurrence, few artists could surpass Kirby in his ability to make such wonders believable and vividly hyper-real. The machine that Kirby constructed is also strikingly believable. The master was always capable of designing a contraption that looked like it did the job in question. The text was also evocative, describing Nelson Flagg’s life force as a ball darting about the screen that he is watching, as he reincarnates.

Throughout his lifetime, Kirby created several characters whose souls would switch bodies, or whose bodies would simply transform. This transformation was usually accompanied by a wonderful visual display of cosmic forces at work. When he began his historic stint at Marvel, The Fantastic Four’s character, The Thing was an immediate hit, with his propensity to change unpredictably from human to creature and back again. This page from Fantastic Four #40 is arguably one of Kirby’s most powerful and moving examples of this metamorphosis. What is most striking here is the situation in which Reed Richards feels compelled to transform Ben Grimm seemingly against his will. One can see the resentment and weary resignation in the Thing’s expression as he rises from the floor.This is a wonderful three panel sequence that elucidates human nature is a way that only a genius like Kirby can. After Reed’s ray strikes him, Ben falls to the floor. As he begins to rise in panel two, he no longer appears to be a sentient being, but a sort of mindless primordial reptilian entity from the dawn of time. His right hand is moving forward mechanically and gesturing just above the level of the Thing’s head in panel three, focusing the reader’s eye on that grim visage.

The most cosmic transformation should be that from man to god, or in reverse. Kirby explored such concepts numerous times over the years, beginning in the 1940’s, and continuing into the 80’s. Thor’s Hammer was a particular fixation for the artist. He used it twice at National and then at Marvel most famously. When Kirby did Thor in the sixties, he and Lee explored the idea of the object of the hammer transforming both itself and its owner. This sequence in Thor #154 is one of the nicest examples of this transition.

The three-panel sequence generally seems to be Kirby’s choice to most effectively depict transformation. While not the most dynamic series of figures, there is a nice subtle forward movement here beginning with Thor kneeling. As he strikes down with his hammer, the resulting explosion in panel two pushes Blake’s right hand holding the cane towards us in panel three to emphasize the change.

Thor’s series featured one of the most inventive of transformative beings, which I discussed in an earlier blog on cosmic energy. Ego the Living Planet was able to re-incorporate as a bi-pedal hominid or any number of other manifestations. Here is a fantastic drawing of him from Thor #155.

This particular panel dynamically depicts the character known as the Recorder in a signature Kirby pose with left hand extended, zooming up and outwards from the living planet. The planet and figure are surrounded by a fantastic interstellar environment of organic and intergalactic matter which give substance to and tie together the various compositional elements.

When Kirby left Marvel for National yet again, part of his new body of work was another exploration of Godhood. This time the gods emerged full-blown, without need of transformation. There were in fact several races of them, co-existing beyond the earthly sphere. Shown here, Orion and Lightray represented the Cosmic Clear light of the Source. Here, encircled by bands of energy, which guide him, Orion returns to his home planet.

Having explored various magnificent depictions of a world fit for gods in Thor with his designs for Asgard, Kirby gives us a new twist here. It is a city that floats above a more pristine world below.

The energetic opposite of New Genesis is the dread planet known as Apokolips, which represents the dark aspect of the Source. In the first issue of New Gods, we discover that Orion is somehow connected to Apokolips and its ominous ruler, Darkseid. Contacted by the Source, the sentient energy that binds the universe together, Orion returns to the fire-pitted gulag planet Apokolips on a mission of discovery. Here we see a dark and ominous series of images, as the planet’s baleful inhabitants transform its very life force into the energy to sustain them.

This is a powerful series of three panels yet again, which begins with a long shot of the planet from Orion’s point of view, and then moves in closer as we see the grim structures that make up the surface of Apokolips. Finally we zoom in on a close-up of the pathetic wretches toiling hopelessly.

This story in New Gods #1 is surely the base of the pinnacle that became Kirby’s magnum opus. Strange that Kirby’s Fourth World is often dismissed as being poorly written and conceived in comparison to his work with Marvel, when this series is arguably one of the most influential when it comes to its impact on popular culture. In Kirby’ depiction of the metamorphosis of the world of the old gods into the new, he has sown seeds that continue to bear fruit, far beyond the plagiarism that it has engendered and spawning reinterpretations into the evolving intricacies of the DC Universe.


Image 1- Fighting American #1, Joe Simon & Jack Kirby

Image 2- Fantastic Four #40, Jack Kirby, Stan Lee

Image 3- Thor #154 Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Vince Colletta

Image 4-Thor #155 Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Vince Colletta

Image 5-6 New Gods #1 Jack Kirby, Vince Colletta