Force of Nature with a Pencil (2000)

There comes a time to put away childish things, and also a time to take them out of storage for another peek. For me, the kids' stuff is comic books. Looking through my yellowed stack of 12-cent tales disinterred from the basement, I remember the buzz I once got from The Fantastic Four, the Mighty Thor, Captain America, Spiderman and the Hulk -- all of them creations, in whole or in part, of the legendary Marvel comic artist Jack "The King" Kirby.

As a kid, I preferred Kirby's '60s superheroes over those of DC, Marvel's main competitor. Superman? A sanctimonious goody-goody in tights. Hawkman, The Flash and the rest of the Justice League of America? Lantern-jawed bores, ciphers who could just as well have been punching time clocks as villains. Drawn in a workmanlike way, DC characters were bled of all energy or spirit. In the psychedelic era, any kid in the know went straight for the hard stuff: Kirby's work at Marvel.

As an artist, the King was more force of nature than draftsman, mastering a cinematic style that anticipated the storyboard art of Hollywood action films. Mention Kirby's name to any comic artist working today and the response most often heard is "genius."

By the end of the '50s, comics were waking up from the sleep of reason of the infamous comics scare, when parent-led groups claimed the medium was corrupting young minds. The so-called Silver Age of comics can be dated to the turn of the new decade, when Kirby, along with the relentlessly self-promoting Stan Lee, reinvented the hero genre. The pair created a happy hunting ground of mythic themes for an embryonic boomer audience.

Parents have traditionally regarded superhero comics as a suspect sub-genre of childrens' reading at best, with empty calories of moral or literary instruction. "But at least they're reading something" was the cry that saved comics from complete adult disdain. Moms and dads didn't make much distinction between the schlock and the sublime. They missed out on the Nordic lore reworked in The Mighty Thor, and the subterranean fragments of Greek and Judaic mythology that flowed through other Kirby/Lee tales. Not that kids back then had a clue either: we just knew what we liked.

Many of the Marvel tales were informed by a pop-science awareness absent from other comic books. (The "negative zone" so feared by the Fantastic Four was the Kirby/Lee take on the antimatter being theorized by '60s physicists.) Marvel even managed to deconstruct the superhero. Spiderman had an immense insecurity complex in his Peter Parker guise, and suffered the indignity living with his dotty, doting Aunt May. The Fantastic Four's Brooklynese-speaking Ben Grimm, mutated during a botched space shot, pronounced himself "The Thing" in a fit of landing-pad Weltschmerz. Similarly scarred by a science gone wrong, arch-enemy Dr. Doom took his misfortune out on the world; yet he and The Thing weren't good and evil in the traditional comic book sense; they were more complex than that. Many Marvel characters were rendered with a larger moral palette than black and white.

But more than anything else, it was the art that made Marvel. For a full decade, the short, cigar-chomping Kirby would preside over the birth of every major comic book superhero and villain at the company. In fact, considering Kirby's prodigious output (three pages or more a day of comic art, three times the average pace), and what he got in return, it's fair to say the prolific penciller suffered the fate of many artists who show up before history invites them: he got screwed. Refusing to sign a contract that effectively made Marvel the creator of his characters, the King worked in a legal limbo. (Kirby was responsible for fully one-quarter of Marvel output in the Silver Age.) After a decade with the company, Kirby fled to DC, where he helped breathe life into a company that was coming out of its artistic doldums.

His Fourth World comic series in the early '70s incorporated a vast four-colour cosmology, in which earth became the battleground for off-world forces of good and evil. Whenever I got my hands on the latest installment of the New Gods, The Forever People or Mr. Miracle, I felt like I was going to faint. If I experienced the same level of excitement over something today, I'd probably have a heart attack.

I wasn't the only young artist paying attention. Kirby's protean visions of distant worlds, impossible machines, and alien beings had an influence far beyond the off-white margins of comic books. His Darkseid character (pronounced Darkside), a cloaked piece of nastiness in a modified Nazi helmet, anticipated Darth Vader by several years. In Kirby's series, the good characters are plugged into a spiritual power station called "The Source." The Star Wars series, coincidentally, had "The Force." George Lucas claimed inspiration in Homer and Joseph Campbell for his films; the director's primary source may have been closer to the convenience store than the lecture hall.

The King even had to struggle to get his original pencilled pages back from Marvel. When a legal victory of sorts was achieved against the company in the 1980s, only 2,100 of an estimated 10,000 pages were returned to the artist. The rest were simply unaccounted for -- stolen outright from Marvel offices, in most experts' opinions, only to show up for sale on the floors of comic conventions. (To give you an idea of what Kirby's stuff is worth, a near-mint first issue of the Fantastic Four from 1962 runs $18,000 US. Sadly, I started collecting late.) At a convention in San Diego in 1993, Kirby was asked what he thought of his art going for high prices when he was unable to participate in the profits. A fanzine, The Jack Kirby Collector, recorded his response: "You ever hear of a guy named Peter Paul Rubens? He drew art for a sou, and he died a pauper. Now you can't touch a Rubens for less than two million. Me, I drew art and made enough to keep my family fed. And if it's selling for so much, that's flattery. They think of it as fine art, and that's enough for me."

For Jack Kirby, creation seemed to involve something resembling eidetic imagery, "almost like photographing the strange, realistic world that he saw inside," as one ex-Marvel alumnus put it. Late in his career that became a liability, as his output grew increasingly abstract and idiosyncratic. Muscles became more balloon-like, perspective more exaggerated. Female characters devolved into the "men with tits" familiar from other, lesser artists. Even for the comic medium, his dialogue began to sound bombastic, littered as it was with multiple exclamation marks. Occasionally, the lines were as outre as any found in a Hong Kong movie. "Jumping Jellied Jaguars" is one Kirby-minted expression.

Many comic artists began by copying Kirby's Marvel work as kids. I did myself, relentlessly copying (though not tracing) his cinematic battle scenes. Eventually I moved on to the more respectable area of political cartoons, but the Marvel artist's action-packed pages introduced me to the possibilities of creating entire worlds on a blank sheet of paper.

"I'm figuring out how not to die," Kirby said in an interview toward the end of his life. "I just figured a way where I could live 200 years, and come back." Pressed to explain, he would only say "No, I'm not gonna tell you. It's my own thing. I'll tell your great grandson!"

Kirby archivists, enthusiasts that they are, slyly indicate a 1996 edition of the tabloid
Weekly World News that appeared two years after the King's death. Tucked in between Bigfoot accounts and miracle cures, there was an item about Kirby's ghost teaching a 10- year-old in New Jersey to draw in his style.

One hopes the alleged artist's parents didn't call in the local exorcist when they heard his tabloid-tailored tale. Me, I would have sold my parents into slavery to have Kirby coach me along in a Hulk/ Thing battle. As it is, I've still got some of his Marvel comics, and that's ghost enough for me.

Geoff Olson is a Vancouver writer and editorial cartoonist.