Over the last decade that I’ve been looking at the work of Jack Kirby, I’ve said many times that I wish the various media companies that own the rights to his work would collaborate and put out a series of hardcover books called The Complete Jack Kirby. In the same way we have the complete works of so many of our other historically important authors collected in one set of books, I thought such a collection would be a nice tribute to Kirby and a great way to celebrate the comics medium. Yes, the series would be large — Kirby illustrated over 20,000 pages of art, around 1,500 covers, not to mention hundreds of pages of 1960s layouts, hundreds of unpublished material and commission pieces — so if each volume was 400 pages, you would be looking at about 60 volumes. To me, a project like this seems like a no-brainer — in addition to the Mount Everest of books they have already published, if Marvel and DC could work together to publish something like the Superman vs The Amazing Spider-Man: The Battle of the Century comic book back in 1976, surely they could gather the public domain material, work with the owners of the Simon/Kirby material, collaborate with the Kirby historians who have gathered Jack’s rare work, and put out a nice set of books honoring the man many consider the most important artist to work in the comics medium.
Thus far it doesn’t look like such a comprehensive project is in the works for a long list of reasons, but you have to give credit to comics historian Greg Theakson for starting the project. Greg has done a terrific job publishing a lot of Jack’s early work. At his Pure Imagination website you can see Greg has published five volumes of his The Complete Jack Kirby series covering Jack’s work from 1917 – 1947. I highly recommend these books if you are interested in the history of comics.
Years ago Greg put out a CD that had a PDF file featuring some of Jack’s very early comics work. Recently it looks like Greg has put out a 160-page book featuring much of that material called Comic Strip Kirby featuring 375 examples of Jack’s newspaper syndicate work from 1937-39. I need to pick up a copy of that, but for today, let’s go old school: I thought it might be fun to look at a few of the comic strips collected on the Theakson Comic Strip Kirby CD which is an 80-page PDF file. I want to give you a taste of Jack’s early work, so if you want a more comprehensive look at it, I encourage you to pick up Greg’s books. In the introduction of the PDF, Greg writes:
These are Jack Kirby’s earliest published works. Most were taken from a scrapbook kept by Ma Kirby. While far from complete, this is the most comprehensive collection of his strip work ever produced. I’ve looked around for years, and these are the only copies I’ve ever seen, and now you can see them too!
If this scrapbook still exists (which I obviously hope still does) I hope at some point someone can take photographs or make scans of each page so we can see what the original faded piece of newsprint looks like. I hope someone has this scrapbook, and I hope it’s in a nice cool place for safe storage. It’s difficult to decide which comics to choose to highlight here, I’ll go ahead and pick about twenty that I think will give you a nice overview of Jack’s early work. Greg has a lot of Socko the Sea Dog strips in this collection as well, but I won’t look at those for now, maybe in the future I’ll do an article on that material.
This is the first comic Greg presents. You can see it’s called “Facts You Never Knew!!!” with three exclamation points, so maybe even early in his career Jack liked using a lot of exclamation points. The more likely scenario is that an editor came up with that font and that was put over the comic art in the publication phase by the worker laying out the whole paper.
There’s no author listed for this one on top of the strip, but the others Theakston presents are credited to H. T. Elmo and Bob Dart. The dates I can make out on most of them are 1936 and 1937. My guess is Jack did not write these, his task was to add the illustrations, but if any other Kirby scholars know more about this material, feel free to correct me and I can add that to the article. That strip is hard to read here, especially as a half-page on a webpage, so let’s zoom in to each individual panel.
Greg restored these images, and I’m using screen caps of the images from my PC to show them here — the quality of the linework would be much better on the original art and the original news clippings, which I hope at some point can be scanned. Quite a bit of detail just in that one image. You can see a part of the camel outside the tent, some sand dunes, a pillow off to the left — Jack pays a lot of attention to the Arabian outfits. The hand on the Arab having the butter poured on his head is a bit off, as is the arm of the woman — Jack is still learning perspective at this point. For the rest of these panels, you’d have to think Jack is using some photo reference for the costumes. Unless Jack had access to a swipe file as he was working on the illustrations, my guess would be maybe he went to a local New York Public Library and he leafed through books on history and art history to get his photo reference. Note the attention detail in the other costumes.
Next is another example of “Facts you Never Knew.” This one credited to H.T. Elmo as writer. Jack’s work reminds me a bit of Hal Foster here in the first panel, you would have to think Foster was a huge influence on Jack along with Alex Raymond. The Japanese woman looks more like an American actress wearing Japanese makeup than a real Japanese woman, so I wonder if Jack may have used a photo of an actress in makeup for that image, or maybe this was based more on the stereotypical way cartoonists drew Japanese women at this time. Notice Jack’s careful attention to costume detail, which was very important in terms of trying to capture the various eras with a single image. The second panel is very cinematic, maybe Jack used a stock photo or he relied on his own memories from the local Lower East Side movie theater.
Next is a third example from this series. As you will see under the close-up of Napoleon, I think it’s a pretty safe bet that Jack’s image was based on the painting by Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825) called “Coronation of Emperor Napoleon I and Coronation of the Empress Josephine in the Notre Dame de Paris, December 2, 1804” where Josephine kneels before Napoleon during his coronation. It was painted between 1805 and 1807. Jack may have used an image of the painting itself from an art history book or a book on world history, or Jack may have referenced another portrait of Napoleon where Jacques-Louis David’s image was the original source for a copy of the portrait. Little doubt in my mind the painting (or a copy) is the source and Jack simply removed the part of the arm raising the crown in his composition.
One final strip from this series. Kirby signs this art Jack Curtiss. Like a lot of immigrants and the children of immigrants, Kirby wanted to reinvent himself and come up with a catchy name like all the movie stars were doing. You can see Jack was very comfortable doing comedy in the first panel. The second panel is beautifully done: Jack hasn’t mastered his craft yet, but there is a grace and simplicity to that classic Romeo and Juliet composition. The third panel looks like it could have been an ad for a romantic comedy of errors sitcom, and the final panel shows how this strip had a tremendous diversity of ideas with no real rhyme or reason to the combination of themes.
Here is a newspaper feature called “Laughs From the Day’s News!” I wonder if Jack wrote this — maybe this was his idea for a regular feature and this was part of his pitch. Another example where you have a wide variety of ideas. You can see Jack must have had some photo reference for the peacock, although notice he changed the face and beak a bit for humor — the other characters look like they were drawn without photo reference so have a more cartoony feel. The theme is based on the story that an Oriental princess married a bellboy, and the other panels feature gags based on unlikely pairings.
Next, another unique piece drawn by Kirby, “Our Puzzle Corner.”
Have fun figuring out the puzzles. Hint: you also have to rearrange the words to see what Farmer Jones is telling Tommy. I also love that there are “at least 8 errors” in the final panel, does that mean there might be more? Guess it’s better to cover your bases in case there are. You can see Jack signed this piece “Brady” with what looks like a prototypical Kirby squiggle behind the name. Maybe Jack hoped he could do several comics under different pseudonyms to make extra cash.
Below, we have some examples from a series called “Your Health Comes First!!!” Again, I would think Jack is working with another writer who gives him the script, and Jack does the illustrations. You can see Jack bounces around between cartoony characters and photorealism in this example. It’s an effective technique that gives variety to the work, but I also suspect that early on Jack was struggling to find a middle-ground between photorealism and drawing in a cartoony style, so you see both approaches in his work from this period. It’s as if he’s not sure which direction to go in. It also may be Jack thinks the juxtaposition works. You still see a lot of beginner cartoonists (and pros) combining both styles, specifically caricature artists tend to make the head bigger than the body.
As many of you know (and you may disagree with my terminology), Jack would fuse photorealism and expressionism together for his 40s and 50s work, then his work would become a bit more abstract drifting toward surrealism in the 1960s and 70s. Jack used the work of artists like Foster and Raymond as his foundation, and moved in his own distinct, unique direction. Not all artists do this. I can think of many artists who rarely experiment with style and you see very little evolution to their approach; not so with Kirby.
In this comic, I love the puppy in panel 3 with his tongue wagging, you can see Jack added little motion lines to express the movement. It’s fun to see Jack learning his craft here, using the basics of comics storytelling. The brunette woman in panel 4 is an early female Kirby archetype — you see a similar-looking woman in several of the comics in Theakson’s Comic Strip Kirby CD, and I wonder if Jack’s mother may have been the influence, or Roz, or maybe that woman is just the Kirby every-woman — thin, pretty, strong, sweet.
I include this next one to show Jack is still struggling with his perspective at this point. Which is understandable, Jack was only 19-years-old, he didn’t have TV and computers to look at like we do where we can find any image imaginable fairly easily — he was drawing comics requiring him to express a lot of different ideas on the fly based on whatever scraps of illustrations he could find. Even if Jack did use photo ref for the woman in the first panel, she is still a bit off. Looks as if Jack had to try and squeeze her into that frame. I guess the drawing is not that bad, but it doesn’t compare to the gorgeous women you’d get in a Raymond Flash Gordon Sunday. The Ghost in panel 2 is cute. You have the archetypal Kirby brunette in panel 3, then across from her, the little girl’s face is a bit squashed.
I honestly don’t know if Jack ever could have mastered photorealism even if he had wanted to. It’s not something that is all that easy. It takes a lot of work, or a certain type of discipline and mental make-up. Kirby mastered the rules of perspective, but I don’t think photorealism was his destiny. Aside from a few things like his self-portrait where he was observing life, Jack’s copies of photos always seem a bit off. It’s actually hard work to reproduce a photo, or more specifically to use a photo as reference and make the image your own (which you need to do to avoid accusations of plagiarism), especially before computer technology which made the practice of photorealism in comics relatively common. Artists like Wallace Wood used an artograph to project the images onto artboard, and it doesn’t appear Jack had access to that technology at this point, or even tracing paper if he’s putting pencil and ink right on artboard. I wonder if Jack saw his shortcomings as a photorealistic artist and gravitated towards what I’ll call Kirby abstract expressionism because of that? Or maybe he always wanted to move in his own direction, or maybe it was a combination of both? Regardless, even in Jack’s most “realistic” work in this era, the perspective is usually a bit weird and Jack’s decision to move towards abstract expressionism (if you even agree that term describes Kirby’s art) may be the result of Jack adapting to the fact that he could not draw like a camera reproducing an image. Some people have that gift like Norman Rockwell (and the skill and money to hire models), others do not.
I included this next comic because of that beautiful image of the mountain range. Kind of funny to include mountain climbing in a health column considering how dangerous it is, and you’d think for a panel telling you to take a vacation, maybe a relaxing beach scene might be more appropriate. You can see in the 3rd panel, Jack is already getting pretty good at showing action, and maybe at this point he was beginning to realize that was how he could separate himself from the pack. Great touch having the dog with his ears blowing backwards as he runs forward.
There are a lot of great “Your Health Comes First” episodes in the Theakston Comic Strip Kirby CD collection that I have. I’ll show a few more. I chose this one mainly because I thought Jack’s reproduction of a fly close-up is kind of funny. Again, I don’t think copying photos was ever going to be in Kirby’s future as an artist. This type of work looks very generic, and as we would see, Kirby was much better at drawing giant insects using his own imagination as the reference point. Notice how short the explorers legs are in panel 2, another example of Jack not able to fit the whole figure inside the frame, something many beginning artists struggle with. We also see the golfer is pretty well-done — Jack immediately seemed to have a gift, or a talent, or just an ability to make characters in motion look more dynamic than a lot of artists at the time.
Below is another example where I think we see Jack’s perspective still needs work. That woman in panel 2 is off. Look how tiny the hands are. If Jack used a photo for this, he didn’t pull it off very well. Look how tiny that right leg is on the bodybuilder laying in the sun in panel 3. A lot of this stuff looks like the work of a kid learning to draw, and Jack was a kid, although most depression era teens were far older than their years. One of the problems here may have been that Jack didn’t have a lot of experience drawing from real life. He is doing these comics on deadline that require photo research, so he’s spending all his time copying pictures or using standard comics motifs. Unlike an artist like Alex Raymond who could hire models and carefully set up compositions he could work from, Kirby is winging it. So in these comics we’re witnessing Kirby learning how to draw not from observing life, but from having to produce work on the spot for a paycheck. He’s not in France blissfully painting landscapes. That’s not to say this is bad 1930s comics — very few of the artists working then showed a mastery of perspective, and in some ways that cartoony style was the style of the 30s, so Jack was drawing like his peers — but it is worth mentioning Jack’s art has some flaws in it at this point. It reminds me a bit of Chuck Jones early cartoon work where he seemed to be copying the style of other cartoonists and the work was a bit unmemorable, then as he grew older he developed his own distinctive approach resulting in a style that arguably made him one of the top cartoon directors ever to work in the medium.
I’ve been kind of harsh on the young Jack Kirby thus far, pointing out what I see are craftsmanship flaws in the art (and you can feel free to disagree), but boy does that change here. This comic is pretty good. It reminds me a bit of Al Williamson’s work. I don’t know if Jack got his hands on some old Prince Valiant strips or some old Flash Gordon, but every one of these panels are really well done. Great use of shadow; simple, smart use of line variety, the perspective is relatively perfect on all the figures (well, the kid’s head is a bit big but that could be for humor). This can stand up there with some of the best photorealistic comics of that era, so Jack was moving towards making a major leap towards mastering a photorealistic style in comics at this point in time.
I’ll show you one more of the “Your Health Comes First” comics, and again, I’m really struck by the quality of this one compared to the ones we looked at earlier. To paint a clear picture, this may be the best one out of the batch, most of the other ones are not quite as technically sound. Wonderful composition in the entire piece, really amazing line variety (look at the pants in panel 1). Kirby was also becoming a fine inker at this point. The first image (the panel going sideways) may not be that effective if the goal was to convey the content in the text, but you have to appreciate Kirby’s experimentation here, and I don’t know if Jack ever used a panel quite like that again. That head is a bit bigger than the body in panel 2 (okay, a lot bigger, compare it to the hand). Probably safe to say the success of this piece is due mainly to style over substance, but as a single work, Jack’s linework and the contrast does a wonderful job of holding the whole piece together. It’s a beautiful 1930s comic, especially that 4th panel: note how Jack handles the outdoor scene of the trees and moon. Gorgeous work there. The moon is at the center of the whole piece. Pretty impressive progress for a 19-year-old kid.
For the rest of today’s column, I’m going to show you a handful of the political cartoons on the Theakston Comic Strip Kirby CD. I won’t provide any commentary for these since I’m sure most of you are familiar with the WW II era. The only thing I will say is how tragically amazing it is that all of these comics could be published in a newspaper today, and all you would have to do is paste new faces on the characters — the same things are happening again. In these samples, Jack isn’t breaking any new ground, these are traditional newspaper political cartoons, and the genre is still pretty much the same today — you try and find a clever way to express a topic of importance in the news using visuals; as you can see from these, war was on the horizon. Some of the dates I can make out on these (where there is a date) are 1938, and 1939. It would be interesting to know more about Kirby’s apparently brief gig as a political cartoonist if any of the Kirby historians have any unpublished info on that period. You can see Kirby signed some of these “Davis.”
Could Kirby have been a daily political cartoonist? Sure. If someone would have given him that job, this early work suggests Jack could have handled the assignment easily, and he would have continued to learn and get better as many artists do. But ultimately, these are not cultural masterpieces of political cartooning that will stand alongside the work of an icon like Thomas Nast, Jack is putting forth very simple ideas here, but it’s solid work. I’m sure Jack was glad to get a paycheck for all of this material, it must have been an incredible feeling for him to be able to help out his family during the dark days of the depression.
Although this collection only scratches the surface, I hope it gives you a glimpse into Kirby’s formative years. My favorite one in this batch is the final one — that image is just as relevant today as it was in 1939 when it was published.