Wednesday, September 23, 2015

REVIEW: Comic Book Apocalypse: The Graphic World of Jack Kirby

If you happen to be in the Los Angeles/San Fernando Valley area, I encourage anyone interested in comics to visit an exhibition of original comics art called “Comic Book Apocalypse: The Graphic World of Jack Kirby” at the Art Gallery at California State University, Northridge (CSUN). The exhibition runs through October 10.

For anyone not familiar with Kirby’s work (who passed away in 1994), he is one of the most visionary and influential comic book artists in the history of the medium. One needs to look no further than the incredibly successful run of films that feature Marvel Comics characters—Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, the Avengers, Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, and X-Men—to understand the man’s stunning legacy. While the more visible Stan Lee, a lifelong Marvel ambassador, has sometimes been solely credited for these and other characters that made Marvel a juggernaut in the comics industry and valuable properties—it’s generally understood now that while the two worked together synergistically to create many of these iconic characters in the 1960s, Kirby played a huge role in inventing and developing the characters, often single-handedly.

Curated by noted comics scholar and CSUN English Professor Charles Hatfield, the retrospective provides a great overview of Kirby’s work. While it comprehensively covers Kirby’s career which began during the 1930s Depression—and encompassed in these early days the creation of Captain America on the eve of World War II—it focuses on his work in the 1960s and ‘70s, when Kirby particularly exploded creatively. This era saw the launch of many of Marvel’s iconic characters and, after his move to rival publisher DC Comics in the 1970s due to his dissatisfaction with Marvel, characters and series like Kamandi, Mister Miracle, the Forever People, New Gods, and the Fourth World.

I’ve covered at length in this blog cartoonists like Roy Crane, Noel Sickles, Milton Caniff, Will Eisner, and Alex Toth, who are considered among the finest cartoonists in the history of the field and had great personal influence on me. Indeed, Kirby and Toth are often considered as the leading examples of the two primary differing schools of comic-book art: Toth was the more naturalistic (though still strong on design) while Kirby’s dynamic, operatic style was perfectly suited for the superhero genre. Although my blog posts clearly show that I lean towards the work of the other school of cartooning represented by people like Caniff and Toth, one cannot deny that Kirby is truly among the titans of the comic-book industry. The characters he created or had a hand in creating  remain the foundation on which modern superhero comics—particularly those published by Marvel that have been major source material for the films—continue to build upon.

In looking at the exhibit, it’s fascinating to see how Kirby incorporated his love of myth, fantasy and science fiction into his work. As he gained more freedom, his creative output reached its apotheosis around this period—though Thor was initially about a god living in the guise of a human among ordinary people, the series soon expanded into the Norse myths of Asgard and other realms. Much of his work at DC—under the umbrella of his ambitious Fourth World saga—further advanced his thinking in these areas. Though Kirby, a product of the Depression era and a member of “the greatest generation,” could hardly be mistaken to be a part of the 1960s counterculture, one could see how the transcendental and fantastic elements of his art and stories had resonance in the psychedelic age. His art during this period also became more stylized and impressionistic, but retained the operatic and epic quality that was always a part of his work.

Seeing original comics art in their original full size is always a treat and a different experience from seeing them in print format and in color. It’s a great opportunity to see original comics art up close and learn about one of the giants of the comic-book field.

Interview with curator and comics scholar Charles Hatfield from the Comics Reporter.

Below: A tour of the exhibition with curator Charles Hatfield.

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