Assembling and mounting the first serious institutional retrospective exhibition in America examining the art of Jack Kirby is a task fraught with contradictions. On the one hand, Kirby is universally recognized within the comics community as one of the greatest innovators of the medium, the first comic book artist to achieve celebrity status, and the primary architect of the superhero mythology at the very center of contemporary human culture. As far as comic book aficionados go, you’re preaching to the choir.
If, on the other hand, you are a normal person, chances are you’ve never heard of Kirby. If I were writing this review for a mainstream magazine – even one devoted to the visual arts – I would be obliged to devote several paragraphs explaining the long and complex arc of Kirby’s career and its reflection in the evolution of the medium and industry -- particularly his iconic role in the struggle for creative autonomy and artists’ intellectual property rights.
I would also have to flesh out the scope of Kirby’s vast output – the few people who could identify Kirby as the co-creator of the Marvel Universe would have no idea about his Golden Age collaborations with Joe Simon, their invention of the romance comic genre, or his wildly inventive post-Marvel tenure at DC. “Kamandi? What the hell’s a Kamandi?!”
Just in case any normals have wandered across the screen of The Comic Journal, Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth was probably the most high-profile of the plethora of titles spawned by Kirby in the wake of his fizzled magnum opus – the “Fourth World” series, consisting of three completely new titles interwoven with a radically revamped “Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen.” The series was an artistic triumph, but a commercial disappointment, and Kirby was tasked with delivering a new title tapping into the dystopian post-apocalyptic world of “Planet of the Apes.”
Kamandi ran for 59 issues from 1972 – 1978 (though Kirby dropped out after #40) and one of the centerpieces of the first serious institutional retrospective exhibition in America examining the art of Jack Kirby consists of the original artwork for an entire issue from its heyday – issue #14, featuring the weirdly heartrending depiction of the death of Kamandi’s faithful giant grasshopper mount, Kliklik, in human gladiatorial games at Hialeah racetrack in Florida, now run by a giant sentient snake/postapoc department store magnate named Mr. Sacker.
The story has particular resonance for exhibition curator Charles Hatfield, who cut his Kirby teeth on Kamandi as an adolescent, and went on to pen the 2012 Eisner award-winning Hand of Fire: The Comics Art of Jack Kirby, the first full-length academic tome devoted to Kirby (and subject of a TCJ roundtable in which I participated). The success of that book led to the organization of Comic Book Apocalypse: The Graphic World of Jack Kirby at the unusually supportive Cal State Northridge, where Hatfield teaches a “Comics and Graphic Novels” course.
There’s not a lot you can do with vintage original comic art to make it seem comfortable in a white-cube style gallery setting – it is what it is: commercially produced camera ready fragments of narrative sequences aimed at teenage boys. Albeit -- in the case of this show’s focus period -- teenage boys who were dropping acid, engaging in free love, protesting the Vietnam War, and preparing for the anarcho-syndicalist utopia that would surely arrive no later than the mid-70’s.
That context and Kirby’s full-throttle content – both in terms of his remarkable draftsmanship and literary bent – is what sets this exhibit apart from your run-of-the-mill comics-in-the-museum junkets. But rather than praise the particular idiosyncratic genius of mid-to-late Kirby or rehash the congenital defects of books-on-the-wall curatorial projects – both of which should be self-evident to anyone with even a passing interest in comic art – I’ll limit myself to specifics of Comic Book Apocalypse.
As indicated above, the show focuses on Kirby’s late 60s-to-mid-70s period, when the artist was constantly breaking new ground aesthetically and politically (in terms of comic creator autonomy), but it includes examples of work from every period in his lengthy career, touching on genre forays into romance, war, occult, westerns, espionage, autobiography, and science fiction. Lots of science fiction.
In addition to the full Kamandi story, there’s original art for a complete Marvel Thor story (#155, Now Ends the Universe!, 1968) which allows for fruitful comparison of the textual and inking contributions of Vince Colletta and Stan Lee respectively, as opposed to Kirby’s own distinctive literary voice and Mike Royer’s faithful renditions of Kirby’s pencils.
This latter is particularly evident due to the fact that by the Kamandi era, Kirby was making thermofax copies of his original art, which have been preserved and scanned by the Jack Kirby Museum and Research Center. A couple of actual size printed scans are included, but -- most ingeniously -- the entire story has been loaded onto a digital tablet with an interface that allows you to morph between the penciled and inked versions of each page. With commercial comic book art, a constant paradox is the fact that the trace of the artist’s hand is almost always covered over by another, lesser craftsman’s translation. In this case, the evidence reassures the faithful of what was already evident about the high fidelity of Royer’s inks.
The rest of the show is arranged in thematic clusters: “Gods, Demigods, Demons” – collecting pages from Thor, Mr. Miracle, Silver Surfer, Demon, etc.; “The World That’s Coming” – OMAC, Kamandi, Silver Star; “Kirbytech” – more Fourth World, Fantastic Four, S.H.I.E.L.D; “Future Primitives” – Toxl the World Killer [?!], 2001, and Devil Dinosaur, which is represented by an astounding two-page spread from 1978’s Object from the Sky which ripples with “Kirby krackle” – the artist’s signature multi-purpose energy patterning – and hovers somewhere between art nouveau decorative abstraction and medieval manuscript illumination.
Such examples of Kirbys phenomenal artistry abound, and are brought to the forefront with the inclusion of a large non-figurative 1975 ink and watercolor painting called Dream Machine in which the Kirbytech has finally engulfed the entire picture plane, and a small but potent selection of his idiosyncratic collage work, which he regularly tried to incorporate into his published narrative work. These works are possibly the most convincing regarding Kirby’s authenticity as a visionary artist – clotted with the same horror vacuii density of information as his best splashes (or an initial page from The Book of Kells), they regularly repurpose images through spectacular shifts of scale, conjuring planets from micrographs of crystals: infinity in a grain of sand.
Charles Hatfield’s and Cal State Northridge’s mounting of this marvelous, long overdue exhibition is an infinitely more significant art historical event than billionaire Eli Broad’s entire new Los Angeles contemporary art museum, which opened at the same time and has garnered headlines around the world. Which kind of raises the question of whether the institutional authority of an art museum actually has any real legitimacy to bestow on comics that they haven’t earned by their own blood, sweat and tears in the street and in the marketplace. But I hope in that respect as well that I’m preaching to the choir.
PS: Buy the limited edition catalog, which includes a reprint of my 2000 essay on Kirby’s Fourth World, as well as contributions from Howard Chaykin, Andrei Molotiu, Dan Nadel, Ben Saunders, and more!
Comic Book Apocalypse: The Graphic World of Jack Kirby
August 24 – October 10, 2015
California State University, Northridge Art Galleries.
Mike Curb College of Arts, Media and Communication 18111 Nordhoff St. Northridge, CA 91330
Gallery hours are Mon-Sat 12-4pm, Thurs 12-8pm.