Two Early Westerns by Jack Kirby

Both Joe Simon and Jack Kirby had drawn some Western comic stories at the start of their careers. After their team up, Simon and Kirby would return to this genre but would combine it with others. Boys’ Ranch was Western plus boy gang and Bullseye added costumed hero to the mix. Simon and Kirby would even produce comics that joined the romance with the Western genre. As for pure Westerns, the only work Simon and Kirby did was some covers. After the break up of the Simon and Kirby collaboration, Jack began doing freelance work for both DC and Atlas, some of which included Westerns. I thought it might be interesting to examine some examples from early in Jack’s freelance period.

All-Star Western #99
All-Star Western #99 (February 1958) “The Ambush At Smoke Canyon” page 5 art by Jack Kirby

I am going to do this backwards and start with the later of the two stories. “The Ambush At Smoke Canyon” was published by DC with a cover date of February 1958. The six page story begins with the return of a scout’s horse to Fort Desolation without the scout himself. Realizing that something is amiss but with most of the force away on detail, Lt. Dan Foley goes out alone to try to follow the horse’s trail. Foley finds the scout pinned down by some Pawnee. Dan sneaks past the attackers and finds the scout wounded but not badly. Dan convinces the scout to sneak out and use his (Dan’s) horse to get help. Meanwhile Dan lures the Pawnee into a cave and traps them there until help arrives.

I got to say this is not that great a story. Does it seem reasonable that not only was Dan able to sneak past the Pawnee but that the scout was then able to sneak back out again? Even the method Foley uses to lure the Indians into the cave seems more contrived then ingenious. All and all a rather forgettable story.

However Jack Kirby has rescued otherwise uninspiring stories just by the visual excitement that he can add. Unfortunately that is not the case for this story. In fact a quick glance at the art might leave one unsure that it was done by Jack. I believe Kirby did the art, the two Indians of panel 5 of page 5 (see above image) look to me to be good evidence of Kirby’s pencil. There are some other examples in the story as well. But why does Kirby’s involvement seem so unobvious? One reason is a recurring problem now that Jack was freelancing. More and more in the future someone else would ink Kirby’s pencils. At times, and I think this is one of them, the inker seems to deliberately mask some of Jack’s eccentricities and make art look more like the house style. Whether the inker of this story was trying to correct Kirby or just was not talented enough, his overbearing inking has done a great disservice to the art.

Sometimes no matter how poor the inking, Jack’s powerful drawing would shine through. I do not know why that did not happen here. The layouts are not very interesting. There is little use of some of Kirby’s favorite techniques such as exaggerated perspective. Much of the action is from a distance, while Kirby usually favored his action up close and personal. Even the one fight scene included was handled rather poorly. I may not be able to explain why Kirby’s art in this case was one of his more forgettable efforts, but clearly freelance work did not always provide the best circumstances for Jack’s art.

Two-Gun Western #12
Two-Gun Western #12 (September 1957) art by Jack Kirby “No Man Can Outdraw Him” page 3 art by Jack Kirby

The next Kirby Western we will examine is a five page one done for Atlas with a cover date of September 1957. It tells about the arrival of a gunslinger into a small town. He is “the fastest gun in the west” and no one in the town is anywhere near his match. Therefore the Gunslinger is largely unopposed when he orders people about and takes what he wants. That is until he becomes interested in a beautiful girl.

Two-Gun Western #12 was one of the last comics published before the Atlas Implosion. Like other work for Atlas prior to this event, in “No Man Can Outdraw Him” Kirby seems to have a lot of control over the content. I can not say for sure whether he did the script, but there is something about some of the dialog that is has that slightly over the top quality that Kirby so often used.

The inking looks very different from what Jack for recent work in Yellow Claw (December 1956 and February 1957) or Astonishing #56 (December 1956). For those prior works Jack had adapted the Simon and Kirby house inking style. This style makes use of a special type of crosshatching using a brush instead of a pen. Common to the S&K house style are a set of long roughly parallel lines intersected by a series of shorter lines which I like to think of as a picket fence design. Another technique is the use of a row of tear shaped dots. Kirby used this style for the early Atlas work I mentioned but modified it by using a finer brush. However none of this is found in “No Man Can Outdraw Him”. In that story there really is no crosshatching of any kind. Instead spotting is used more sparingly so that the art has a light look to it. When larger dark areas are introduce they tend to be made by completely flooding an area with ink.

Despite the different styles used between these stories I think it would be a mistake to discount Kirby as the inker for the Two-Gun Western story. Look at the forearm of the gunslinger in the fifth panel of the image I provide above. Notice how the nearest portion is made from a couple of closely placed black strips followed by a larger area of black taking up the rest of the forearm. This same sort of technique for spotting clothing became common around the time of the Mainline titles such as Foxhole. A good example can be seen in the lower leg of the paratrooper in the cover for Warfront #28 cover dated January 1956. This concept of modifying the S&K studio inking style but dropping crosshatching and simplifying the spotting can also be seen in other Kirby works of about this period. For instance in “Town Full Of Babies” (Black Cat Mystic #60, November 1957). I have also previously remarked on this showing up in the all Kirby Prize romances that Jack did staring about November 1955 and going to December 1956). Kirby would evolve the style even further in the late Young Romance (starting about February 1958 and ending with December 1959). I believe that Kirby found the inking technique he used for Yellow Claw too time consuming. His inking therefore evolved into a quicker style. But the style was not just faster, Jack was much too good an artist to settle for that. Instead he used it to great advantage to give his art a stylized or abstract look.

Jack’s drawing seems to adjust to his new inking style, it also adopts a more stylized look. Jack’s figures often take on exaggerated but very expressive posses. Sometimes this results in some strange distortions such as the small torso of the hero in the second panel shown above. For Kirby it was always about depicting the story and giving his figures life, never about being anatomically accurate.

In short “No Man Can Outdraw Him” is a small masterpiece. It did not provide Jack Kirby’s wild imagination an outlet like he had in Yellow Claw but otherwise it shows what Kirby could do when he had control over what his work. The reverse, which is when Jack lost that control, is shown in “The Ambush At Smokey Canyon” that I started this post with. In all fairness these two are extreme examples, there was a whole lot of middle ground that Jack would occupy in later years. Still it brings to mind two “what ifs”. What if Kirby had continued to ink his own work for the Challengers of the Unknown? Wally Wood’s inking is very beautiful but I cannot help but think it would be more expressive had Kirby used his new style on it. Or what if Atlas never imploded? Kirby seem to have more freedom before the Implosion then after. Who knows what sort of masterpieces Jack might otherwise have produced for Atlas?

You can never provide real answers for such “what if” questions. All we can do is enjoy what was actually done. Unfortunately most of Jack Kirby’s pre-Implosion work for Atlas are obscure and have not been reprinted. However I have one other Kirby Western to discuss but that will have to wait for another post.

4 thoughts on “Two Early Westerns by Jack Kirby

  1. BobH

    Yeah, that Atlas western does look a lot more exciting than the DC one. For the DC one, the inker is probably Frank Giacoia, and given that it was the only story Kirby did for Julius Schwartz’s editorial stable, where Giacoia was a regular, and the “Foley of the Fighting 5th” was an ongoing feature, this was probably more of a ghosting job for Kirby, which is probably why a lot of his tendencies are repressed. Kirby did similar ghosting for Giacoia on some “Johnny Reb” comic strips in the same period.

  2. nick caputo

    The inking may be the work of Frank Giacoia, although it is possible it was in collaboration with Joe Giella. I believe both men worked at DC at the time, and Giella has noted in interviews that he assisted Giacoia when he was facing deadlines. I do see some very sharp line work and use of blacks that denotes Giacoia, although I see other touches that may be the work of Giella. I’d have to take a closer look before I’d make a definitive statement.

    Nick Caputo

  3. nick caputo

    I would agree with you that it is entirely possible that Kirby inked “No Man Can Outdraw Him”. The story also has a Kirby sound in the writing as well. Some of the characters look a little too thin and not to my liking at all, but other panels work quite well, such as the figure and backgrounds in panel 5.

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