Things We Love: Kirby Dots

7 Nov

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Douglas Wolk’s Understanding Comics is one of the best books yet in the nascent field of comics critical theory, but for all that he gets right-which is a lot-he makes one generalization that doesn’t always hold, and in the case of the industry legend Jack “King” Kirby, sells short one of the author’s greatest strengths. The generalization is that mainstream comics sell a story, while alternative, or “art” comics (he uses the terms more or less interchangeably) sell the artist’s personal drawing style. Regardless of the relative merits of the stories in art comics, or the art in mainstream books, the statement, Jack Kirby, while clearly working on the mainstream side of fence, managed to blur the above distinction.

After a fertile stint at Marvel, where Kirby co-created just about every superhero known to man, he became, along with frequent collaborator Stan Lee, the first creator to achieve marquee status in an industry that had previously prided itself on using anonymous hacks, disposable parts on an assembly line who could be replaced easily without the readers noticing. When Kirby jumped ship to rival publisher DC in the early 1970s, he was handed more or less total creative control, and notably, his name appeared on the cover of his comics. It wasn’t just vanity on Kirby’s part. He had built up enough of a reputation that his name could indeed sell an unknown (or, in the case of Jimmy Olson, a known but flagging) title. Kirby set his stories in a universe he called the “Fourth World” a setting in which intergalactic gods used earth as an arena for battles with cosmic consequences. Some of its flaws are glaring: clumsy exposition, terrible dialogue, and no resolution to the story (his contract with DC expired before the battle did). The story’s not without its charms (its nods to the optimism of the youthful counterculture of the time is particularly poignant), but overall, it generally indulges in the excesses common to the “hash-hobbit”1 school of sci-fi and fantasy of the early 1970s.

But that artwork! Those dots! Even when Kirby’s writing fails, every panel is instantly identifiable as coming from the hand of the King. And no feature marks it more clearly than the dots. Ink splotches bleeding into each other everywhere-in one panel, they’re clouds, the next bubbles, the next some indefinable cosmic explosion. Perhaps Wolk is right, and early 70s readers were buying the Fourth World comics for the story or because Don Rickles was on the cover (yes, seriously). But it’s not likely. Mostly, they were buying them because they wanted Kirby’s artwork-his sense of motion, his use of collages, and most of all his dots. Hell, they even have their own wikipedia entry. For all of the far-out cosmic exploration that takes place in titles like The New Gods2 and The Forever People, the dots ground the comics with a certain humanity, letting the reader know that even as they were going into the farthest reaches of the galaxy, the hand of Jack was always there to guide them.

And for that, We Love Kirby Dots.

Haywire comet

Haywire comet

1 This will probably get a post of its own, but the term “hash hobbit,” ripped from a throwaway line in a Dan Clowes comic, refers to the aesthetic, most prevalent in the 1970s, that was marked by an intersection of the drug culture, fantasy (especially Tolkien, obviously), New Age and neo-Pagan influences, traditional folk music, geek culture, a touch of the Occult, and a heaping spoonful of misplaced optimism. Dungeons & Dragons came out of this aesthetic. Many Led Zeppelin records hit all of the above bases at the same time: “The Battle of Evermore,” featuring Sandy Denny from Fairport Convention, another hash hobbit band if there ever was one, practically manages to make the scale explode.
2 When a comic starts out with the line “On the day that the old gods died…,” it’s like the Movie Trailer Announcer is aligning his chakras on the spot.

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