The Architecture of Kirby's Style

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patrick ford
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Joined: September 2, 2010

Jack Kirby was one of the few comic book artists from his era who as an artist was almost entirely self-taught. A large number of the first couple waves of comic book artists came from high schools with art based curriculum's, or received other art instruction.
Joe Kubert attended the High School Of Music And Art in addition to receiving professional training as a 14 year old paid assistant at the Harry Chesler shop.
Alex Toth attended the High School of Industrial Arts which offered advanced instruction in the arts.
Will Eisner attended DeWitt-Clinton High School (as did Bob Kane) which had an excellent arts department.
Jack Cole took the Landon School correspondence course.

By contrast Kirby lacked even the basic tools needed by an aspiring cartoonist. Forget the drawing boards that Kubert and Eisner had, Kirby didn't have paper in many instances. He was found in his early years drawing on walls and side walks. Perhaps because of his lack of formal training Kirby's work is unrestrained by convention. Kirby often counseled aspiring cartoonists seeking his advice to not follow his example. He consistently advised young people to get the institutional instruction he hadn't had the opportunity to take advantage of. Still, for all it's advantages, academic structure can have a tendency to try and codify the arts. It is not always a good thing for creative types to be given a lot "dead end" and "do not enter" signage on their road to expression. Kirby said he attended the Pratt Institute for a short time (maybe only one day). He said he was thrown out for drawing too fast with charcoal.
Kirby was a thoughtful, intellectual man who by his own admission spent many hours thinking about human behavior, storytelling techniques, and collected images in his mind. Kirby instructed the young cartoonist Jack Katz:

"The problem-solving, you do that in your head, but when you put down a line, you've made a decision."

One of the things that separates Jack Kirby from the majority of other comic book artists is the individuality of his style. Like many of his golden age peers Kirby identified Hal Foster, Alex Raymond, and Milton Caniff as his primary influences. Unlike most of his contemporaries you won't detect the heavy stylistic fingerprints of these artists on his work. Kirby's very earliest professional work hasn't yet settled into a unified style. He was still digesting diverse elements. This changed pretty quickly, and by the time of his exceptional early strip The Lone Rider had coalesced. Kirby's early mature style is already totally distinctive. It's notable features are an amazing diversity of figure poses, and points of view, resulting from his natural gift of being able to place a character or object in any perspective no matter how difficult. An ability to capture relaxed human body language, and include in it what an actor would call "business." Kirby will show a character rubbing his eyes, reaching for his pipe, checking his watch , instead of simply standing stock still. These extra bits of information help add interest to otherwise static scenes,and tell the reader more about the character. Like a great actor Kirby was an absolute master of this storytelling device.

Kirby: "Drawing a good figure doesn't make you a good artist. I can name you ten men, right off the bat, who draw better than I do. But I don’t think their work gets as much response as mine. I can’t think of a better man to draw Dick Tracy than Chester Gould, who certainly is no match for Leonardo da Vinci. But Chester Gould told the story of Dick Tracy. He told the story of Dick Tracy the way it should have been told. No other guy could have done it. It’s not in the draftsmanship, it’s in the man.
Like I say, a tool is dead. A brush is a dead object. It’s in the man.
If you want to do, you do it. If you think a man draws the type of hands that you want to draw, steal ‘em. Take those hands.
The only thing I can say is: Caniff was my teacher, Alex Raymond was my teacher, even the guy who drew Toonerville Trolley (Fontaine Fox) was my teacher. Whatever he had stimulated me in some way. And I think that’s all you need. You need that stimulation. Stimulation to make you an individual. And the draftsmanship, hang it. If you can decently: learn to control what you can, learn to control what you have, learn to refine what you have. Damn perfection. You don’t have to be perfect. You are never going to do a Sistine Chapel, unless someone ties you to a ceiling. Damn perfection.
All a man has in this field is pressure. And I think the pressure supplies a stimulation. You have your own stresses, that will supply your own stimulation. If you want to do it, you’ll do it. And you’ll do it anyway you can."

Kirby is noted for, and excelled at, the depiction of action. When Kirby began working professionally action in adventure comic strips and illustration were beginning to escape the point of view of an audience viewing a stage play. The static audience in a theater seat POV was being replaced by a variety of techniques derived from film. Kirby was at the forefront of bringing the wild frenzied cartoon violence of E.C. Segar's Popeye to the "serious" adventure genre. Segar often depicted witnesses to a fight as feeling real physical "sympathy pains" at the sight of the crushing punches being delivered by the antagonists. Any reader of a typical Kirby fight sequence has no doubt noticed the same kind of visceral reaction. The power of the violence depicted is such that subconsciously you might find yourself tensing up or nearly ducking to avoid a blow. Kirby is seeking an emotional and physical core which speaks directly to the subconscious.

Kirby: "I’ve been told at times to draw like a photograph. In
other words some people feel an artist should draw realistically. I
feel that telling a story is no matter what kind of style you have is
more important than having a nice drawing to look at.
I don’t have to be Michelangelo to be effective.
I wanted to transmit the power of men in the ring. I couldn't do that in a static way. I had to do it in an extreme manner. I drew the hardest positions a character could get into. I had no time to put fingernails on fingers. I had no time to tie shoe laces.
I made an impression of things. I would draw as dramatically as I could. I felt I was a human camera trying to get events as they actually were. I was very sincere about that."

Kirby was more likely to mention film as his primary influence than art. It wasn't the photographic look of film that influenced Kirby, but it's storytelling techniques, it's ambiance, it's design. Kirby's neighborhood, the comic strips he read, the movies he saw, the pulp magazines he loved were absorbed, shaped by his imagination, and emotional makeup ready to emerge as personal expression.

Kirby was absolutely clear he made use of exaggeration because he could not capture the intensity of real life (or even film) by drawing in a realistic manner. Kirby felt he needed to use exaggeration in order to convey the power of real emotion.
Even film is a poor substitute for reality. Film director Stanley Kubrick instructed Vincent D'Onofrio.

"I want you to be big. Lon Chaney big."

Kirby talked about this many times. His son Neal Kirby mentioned he saw his father creating the original presentation drawing for Thor. He remembered the character had a helmet with huge horns on it (later changed to wings). Neal said he told his father the horns weren't realistic, that the helmet would fall over. He said his dad chuckled and told him the horns were for "dramatic effect." In another case an agonized comic book fan asked Kirby why he put the Black Racer in skis and a suit of armor. Kirby said, "So he will be noticed."

Kirby: “It’s kind of a John Henry concept where you have to compete with the camera, and, of course, you’re bound to lose because your medium is much more limited — it just hasn’t got the scope of the camera.’’

An artists reputation among his peers is influenced by factors outside the experience of the general readership. Before he began to work at home in the late 1950's Kirby worked in the office with other artists. Kirby's reputation among these artists was established because they saw the ease and precision of his drawing. When you are sitting next to a man who is working steadily, who isn't sketching things in roughly with geometric shapes, who makes decisions based on what works best not what is easiest, and who never seems to struggle with any drawing problem, it makes an impression. Other artists notice things, like an over-reliance on swipes, shortcuts, and stock poses. As noted by Will Eisner, who immediately identified Kirby as a very strong artist, Kirby's level of draftsmanship was a standout from the beginning.
His exceptional natural gifts can be seen in an examination of his war time drawings. Executed in a realistic style entirely different from his comic book work; these handful of drawings are a clear indication of how easily he could have mastered realism if he had pursued it. Kirby has made it clear in interviews over the years though that it was never his interest to develop a naturalistic style. He was consistent in defining his art as a storytelling tool.
There are storytelling advantages for the cartoonist who does not hue to close to realism, he has more tools at his disposal. Exaggeration is a highly effective storytelling tool, and can be just as effective in a dramatic context as it can be in humorous one. A perfect example can be found in the serious work of Harvey Kurtzman. The war stories Kurtzman wrote penciled and inked for E.C. are at the forefront of all comic book achievement. If a person was only familiar with a solo Kurtzman humor masterpiece like Jungle Book, and was told that Kurtzman had also done some deeply tragic war stories it's very possible that they might think it hard to imagine how Kurtzman's art style could fit the subject matter at all without lending an air of disrespect to it. Instead it works better than the starkest kind of realism. A style like Kirby's or Kurtzman's presents a powerful view of reality in terms of emotional content while, leaving open to the readers imagination a greater opportunity for interpretation. The closer an artists style bends to reality, the fewer the opportunities allowed to the readers imagination become.

Kirby's work progresses forward over the years towards abstraction as refinement. Consider things like "Kirby Krackle and Squiggles"
My though is they are not an aimless decorative effect, but are streamlined imagery consistent with the evolution of modern design in the 20th century. They represent a refined visual communication, not purely decorative filigree as seen in the Victorian era.
In some of our current architecture (and in a lot of today's mainstream comic book art) you see things at odds with the modern (a modern now past) aesthetic model.
It is the fashion in some architecture to include cosmetic non-structural elements which are derived from the actual structural basis of some older styles of architecture.
What I see with Kirby is a reduction of forms top their most functional (in terms of comic book storytelling), a complete lack of fake, and purely decorative ornament.
As compared to architecture consider an authentic tudor style house. The exposed beams are the structure (framing) of the house. When you see a modern version of this style there is a very good chance the real structure is hidden, and the exposed "beams" are purely decoration.
Kirby developed a visual language of which every part was devoted to advancing his work as a comics storyteller, his style is authentic, unlike his imitators who borrow certain surface aspects of his work, but don't really get down to the ribs.
Kirby's mature style is like a Case Study House. Economical, functional, and beautiful.

There are many different ways to approach writing and drawing all are interesting and worth a look. Lacking the natural gifts Kirby was born with an intuitive approach probably isn't the best one for an aspiring professional. Because Kirby was one of those rare individuals born with an intellect, talent, and drive of unusual proportions, and because of his hardscrabble background he has given us a look at what a man can achieve left to educate himself.
Jack Kirby the Abe Lincoln of comic books.