In my opinion, one of the most unfortunate decisions for the presentation of Jack Kirby’s artwork was the move sometime in 1968 to reduce the size of the board the artist worked on to 10”x15”. Kirby, an artist used to displaying panoramic compositions was forced by the new size constraints to either compress his drawings into smaller panels or resort to using more large panels per page. That is what he did for the most part. In many cases, this was not a problem, particularly when Kirby was inspired to stretch out on full or double page spreads. Many of these were wonderful and memorable. Let us study this phenomenon using a somewhat entertaining comic, Fantastic Four #80.
Here is a comic that seemingly contains one of Kirby’s minor conceptual fixations, as he and writer Stan Lee had already used the Living Totem concept in Rawhide Kid #22. Although I was initially disdainful of this FF issue, it has become one of my favorites in the later run of the series. The story is kicked off by an appearance by Wyatt Wingfoot, a good example of a proud and yet unpretentious Native American character. Wingfoot is searching for a being from the legends of his tribe, the aforementioned Totem.
As enjoyable as it may be, this is not a scenario that causes Kirby to break a sweat. Just two pages after the splash title, he has already given us another one panel page. This is a fairly silly drawing of Ben and Johnny dancing for joy at the news that they can go on a trip. The King is spinning his wheels here.
Page six above is also a splash, featuring a fairly dramatic rendering of the titular Totem. It’s a powerful and slick drawing, showing the solidity and weight of the creature but nothing Earth-shaking is going on in the picture. It’s a static pose, full frontal with no foreshortening. Just on a wild guess, I would estimate that this page took Kirby about 45 minutes or less to draw, but I could be mistaken.
Now, Keep in mind that this book was conceived shortly after Kirby reportedly had decided, due to his disagreements with Martin Goodman and Stan Lee not to give Marvel any more exciting new properties. Although Kirby is still delivering a solid book with FF#80, there does seem to be a reduction in enthusiasm and very little flexing of creative muscle on his part.
Throughout the comic, the panel count never exceeds five, with many pages having between three and four panels. This five-panel page twelve above is OK, with the first panel being strongest, a nice composition of Johnny flying towards us in forced perspective with Reed and Johnny following, but the remainder doesn’t do much for me by Kirby standards.
This four-panel page 13 above is also fairly strong, but there is a minimum of detail other than “Krackle” and force lines. There is little suggestion of deep space, which certainly saves the artist’s time. The last panel has too much empty space in it for my viewing pleasure.
Page 18 below is for me the best balanced, most successful and most exciting of the book. Panel two is a miniature deep space wonder as the car line of Native Americans move towards us through the canyon. In the third panel, Kirby is using figures and shapes to create a climactic composition. The circular composition swirls with excitement as the Indians circle the Totem, uselessly firing automatic weapons at it.
In the end, it is discovered that the Totem is merely a robot with oil-land grabbing intent, but the actual Totem spirit of Tomazooma does appear in the final panel, proving that the spirit world is potent.
In retrospect, when we read stories like this one, we see a clear indication that the end of Kirby’s run at Marvel was near.
All pages from Fantastic Four #80
Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Joe Sinnott