An Astonishing Jack Kirby Story

Astonishing #56
Astonishing #56 (December 1956) “Afraid To Dream” page 1 by Jack Kirby

It was mid 1956 and the Simon and Kirby studio had failed. Jack Kirby would help Joe Simon with some projects that if successful might bring the team back together again (in the end they did not). But in the mean time Jack had turned to freelance work in order to support his family. Jack was trying to sell DC on a new title that he and Joe Simon and developed called Challengers of the Unknown. Jack had also taken on some work from Atlas. It was a company he had worked for many years ago when it was called Timely. On that occasion Timely had failed to deliver of their promise of a share of the profits from S&K’s creation Captain America. If that was not bad enough, as Atlas they did not pay their artists all that well. But none of that really mattered because Jack simply needed the work.

Kirby took over all the story art for Yellow Claw #2 (December 1956). I have previously posted about this comic and I consider Jack’s Yellow Claw work for issues #2 and #3 to be some of his best effort. It appears that Jack did all the work himself; writing, penciling and inking. Of course since it is Kirby the penciling is great, but the real treat is to be able to see Jack inking his own art.

For the same month as Yellow Claw #2, Jack would do a four page story for Astonishing #56 call “Afraid To Dream”. It concerns a man who has trouble sleeping. His nights are disturbed by a continuing nightmare. In his dream a man crashes in a spaceship on a hostile world. It is night and the world is filled with numerous perils that the injured man must transverse in order to get to safety. But the spaceman must reach his destination soon for when day arrives the planet’s surface becomes too hot for him to survive. Jack has done other stories with vignettes showing the journey of some individual. Therefore I am confident that Jack also wrote “Afraid To Dream”.

Like YC #2, Kirby also inked his own pencils. The inking uses the S&K studio style of spotting only with a finer brush. Finer that is compared to previous S&K productions but still probably too extreme for DC. It is interesting to compare this Atlas work with the spotting that Jack had been doing the past year for Prize romance comics. At a glance these two inking techniques might appear quite distinct. The Prize romances have limited use of spotting and when spotting is used it generally floods an area with black. While for Atlas Jack did a lot of spotting (using a finer version of the S&K house style) and would rarely flood an area with black. However for Atlas Kirby would often cover a large area with closely arranged S&K style inking. These larger dark area are shape similarly as the flooded areas of the 1956 Prize romances. The differences between the two approaches is probably related to the jobs. During the previous year Jack had been doing the penciling for pretty much the entire line of Prize romances. Jack had help, at least at times, with the outline inking but he did the spotting himself. Considering the amount of work he was doing he wanted to keep the inking to a minimum and so avoided the S&K style hatching. When an a black area was needed, flooding it with inking would be quickest. With Atlas Jack probably wanted to impress Stan and the readers. So it was back to S&K style shop hatching but applying it with a finer touch. Jack may have been hoping that his work Atlas might lead not to just work as a penciler but to producing the comics like he had previously in the S&K studio.

The difference between the true masterpiece and the rest is often surprisingly small. The spotting that Jack did for YC #2 and #3 is just amazing. Although the inking done for “Afraid To Dream” uses a similar approach somehow it just does not achieve the same results. It feels a bit rushed to me and just slightly off. Not much, so it is still enjoyable, but not achieving the masterpiece status.

“Afraid To Dream” is just four pages long and it is hardly one of Jack’s greatest work. Still the story is enjoyable and it is nice to see what Jack could do by himself. Kirby seemed to have a lot of control over what he did for Atlas at this time. Jack would loose that control for the work that he would shortly do for DC. However conditions at Atlas would in the not distant future change dramatically with the event called the Atlas Implosion. Kirby would return to doing freelance work after the Implosion, but working conditions would not be the same. After that Jack would be penciler only, writing and inking would be done by others.

Astonishing #56
Astonishing #56 (December 1956) by Joe Maneely

Jack may have been welcomed back to Atlas but he was not Stan Lee’s number one artist. Stan’s bright eye boy was Joe Maneely. Maneely was fast and he used detailed inking. Stan turned to him time and again for the most important covers or stories. The early death of Joe Maneely in 1958 probably had more impact on the future of Marvel Comics then even the Atlas Implosion. What would Fantastic Four #1 have been like if it was drawn by Maneely and not Kirby? Or what about Spiderman with Maneely instead of Ditko? Of course this sort of “what ifs” can never be truly be answered. I must confess I find Maneely to be the antithesis of what I seek in a comic book artist. To me his art is extremely dry and overwrought. I have no doubt that if he was the artist for the Fantastic Four I would never had become a Marvel junkie.

13 thoughts on “An Astonishing Jack Kirby Story

  1. Stan Taylor

    Hi Harry,

    I have long been of the opinion that the dream story in Astonishing #56 was left over inventory from Strange World of Your Dreams. The them, the formatting, and the art match up. The only difference is the hairline on the shrink. There are also elements taken from the Starman Zero proposal by S&K. This story, as well as the changes made to Yellow Claw lead me to believe that Stan Lee allowed Jack Kirby a great deal of leeway to produce his own work from the very beginning of Kirby’s return to Atlas, a trait I also see later at Marvel. (long before the so-called Marvel Method)


  2. nick caputo

    Based on my reading of the early stories Kirby drew when he returned to Atlas on Strange Tales, Astonish, Suspense, Journey into Mystery, Battle and the romance stories, I see many “Kirby-isms” in the early scripts for the 1959-60 period, leading me to believe that Kirby wrote some of those stories. Some examples include “I was the Invisible Man” (Strange Tales #67, Feb 59); “The Luna Lizards had me Trapped” (Tales of Suspense # 6, Nov 59) and “Find ‘Em, Chase “Em, Blast “em” (Doesn’t that sound like a Kirby title?) Battle #65, Aug 1959.

    There was a change in formula though and the fantasy books became more formularized(around the time when the monsters with weird names appeared), with Stan providing a plot to Larry Lieber who then wrote a script for Jack to illustrate. It has been speculated that even those stories may have been changed or partially rewritten by Kirby, although no conclusive proof has appeared.

  3. Harry Post author


    Well we seem to be in agreement about Kirby’s leeway on early Atlas. But as for “Afraid to Dream” being left over from SWYD I do not agree. SWYD never got that science fictiony and the inking is nothing like what was done then. But the inking does closely match Yellow Claw.


  4. Harry Post author


    I have only seen a portion of Kirby’s 59/60 Atlas work. But what I have seen convinces me that the writing is very different then as compared to pre-Implosion. I have not read all the titles you mentioned but I have read Battle #65 and although the title may sound Kirby-ish the story writing does not seem so at all.


  5. nick caputo


    I’d have to disagree with you about the writing on Battle. I see too many stylistic traits that surfaced in Kirby’s later written work. Examples in “Find “em! Chase “Em! Blast “Em!” include the opening exposition on the splash page; the use of “quotes” (Page 1: “This is the “Guided Missle Story”; Page 2: “Nebelwerfer 41”; page 3: “The Loon”; page 4: “Lark”; “Roc”; “Gorgon” (name sounds familiar); “Little Joe”, even the use of sound effects were similar to his later use of them (page 2; panel 3 “WHAAAM!”). “Ring of Steel” in the same issue has some of these traits as well, especially the special effects. I would have to go through every early issue for a full analysis, which I may do at some point, but I believe Kirby was involved in the writing on some stories in this period.

  6. Harry Post author


    I have to admit that I do not find your agruments very convincing. It is hard to believe that the use of quotes is a trait limited to Kirby alone. As for special effects (such as “WHAAAM”) should that be attributed to the artist or the writer? I have not read a lot of comic scripts but those I have did not include instructions on what sound effects to use.

    When I read this Battle story I find the plot to be totally unlike Kirby stories from S&K days or from his late period when he was doing the writing and editing himself. This “story” is about various missle weapons, where is the human drama that is so important to everything Kirby did? The closest you get is a man firing a bazooka. Further the type of writing does not sound like Kirby to me. When I read some of the work Jack did during S&K it has such a similar “sound” to it as compared to say New Gods or the mid ’70s Captain America. Why would Jack writing be so different in the Battle story from a period in between?

    I am not saying that Jack has no input into the stories he did at Atlas. Just that they seem to contain writing that was not done by Jack. That being the case it would seem Kirby did not really have control over his work. But there are other early Atlas stories (Yellow Claw and “Afraid To Dream”) that seem to me to be thoroughly Kirby in manner. My original thoughts on this was that this was a pre/post Implosion difference. Sometime in the weeks to come I will be posting on another pre-Implosion Kirby comic. My initial reaction that one is that Kirby did not have control over it either.


  7. nick caputo


    While others may have used quotes, I haven’t seen much use of it in other non-Kirby stories at Atlas. Around this point it was pretty much Larry Lieber and Stan Lee doing the writing. As far as sound effects go, my pointing out the type of words Kirby used (WHAAMM) may appear superfluous but I believe it is another signature that was specific to his style of wording which continued throughout his career.

    As to why these stories may not read like earlier Kirby stories, it is a possibility that Stan Lee may have supplied Kirby worked with a plot, as he did brother Lieber and others, which may have hindered Kirby. Lee may also have editied the stories. I know the other story in that issue of Battle has more of a human quality, if I recall correctly it involved a young GI facing the dangers of war (and was heavily edited by the comics code).

    Hey, where is Stan Taylor in this discussion? Stan what is your opinion? Do my thoughts have any legitamacy or am I completely off base here?

  8. nick caputo

    One point I don’t think I explained properly re: sound effects. I consider them a key component to the puzzle. If Kirby was the writer of the story then he would have added his own effects, as he did in his own written and drawn stories. In some (many?) cases the writer does add the sound effects, certainly Stan did in the stories he wrote/dialouged.

  9. Harry Post author


    Like I said before I am not convinced about the use of quotes to detect Kirby writing. I cannot say your wrong, just that the evidence is insufficient. It is clear that Lee and Lieber were not the only writers for early Atlas. At some point in the weeks to come I should be posting on this.

    If you are saying that the reason that many of the early Atlas stories do not sound like Kirby is because Lee supplied plots and editing then I do not think we are really in disagreement. Because I am not saying Kirby had no input to those stories. Only that Kirby did not have full control over those stories. What I do not understand is why the Yellow Claw and “Afraid to Sleep” stories do not seem to have that sort of interference.

    I am puzzled by your last statement about sound effects. Is there any evidence about what Stan did in writing before the Marvel method? Heck I am not even sure how to tell who added the sound effects during the Marvel method.


  10. nick caputo


    If you mean pre-implosion Atlas, I agree completely. Many writers worked there, including Carl Wesssler and Hank Chapman. Post-Implosion staff was very small, according to people such as Larry Lieber, who I spoke with. It is possible that others at Magazine Management moonlighted on some comics stories, though.

    I have not thought this out thoroughly, but it is entirely possible that Stan edited/plotted the stories and it may be the reason for the disparity.

    On the original art I’ve see in the Marvel age, Stan added the effects, usually on the printed page that the letterer followed. I believe Stan has mentioned that he loved coming up with those effects. Occasionally an artist may have added them, such as Bill Everett, in the pencil stage, but I believe most writers added their own either in the script or when they recieved the pencilled pages.

  11. Harry Post author


    Continuing on the theme of sound effects and your comment about Stan’s love of them. Couldn’t this be something that Kirby really picked up from Stan. I say this because because sound effects seem such a prominent part of Kirby art from the silver age onward. Sound effects seem to comparitively play such a small part in S&K productions. I am not saying there are not used, just that they are much less frequent and generally smaller in size when used. This is particularly brought home to me as I scan Foxhole. Time and again there guns are fired without any sound effects. Including stories by Jack.


  12. nick caputo

    Its certainly possibile that Lee influenced Kirby in this area. Kirby appears to use a standard array of sound effects. Taking a look through the Eternals Omnibus I see a preponderence of SE such as “Wam”; “Bam” “Krak” “Krassh” or variations of same, along with a few other odd wordings. I think Stan had a better ear for this type of thing, but Kirby does appear to use them fairly frequently in his own work from the 1970s onward.

    I hope someone other than you and I take an interest in minutia of this nature!

  13. Harry Post author


    I do not about how much interest there is in minutia. However with few records, bad memories and conflicting testimonies there really isn’t any other way to provide history.


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