Jack Kirby is arguably the single most influential figure in the history of American comics. He produced countless stories in a career that spanned seven decades, inventing and re-inventing genres and styles every step of the way. He inspired generations of artists and writers; created and co-created thousands of characters; defined the visual vocabulary of superheroes; and believed in the potential of comics to be both entertainment and art, long before most people imagined these stories would be remembered past the four weeks that they sat on newsstands.
In honor of Jack Kirby's birthday. We've assembled some pieces to celebrate the life and work of the man American comics also knows as "the King." This one focuses on Kirby's strength as a cover illustrator.
Jack Kirby's comics work is justly renowned, but one of the less-recognized aspects of his genius was his skill at crafting covers – even half-hidden on a supermarket spinner rack, or surrounded by other colorful titles on a vast magazine stand, his books could reach across the room to grab your attention. Once he left Marvel for DC in the early '70s, Kirby took his designing skill with him. And even though DC tended to be less receptive to his input than Marvel had been (often bringing in other artists to rework his covers, or even replacing them entirely), when he was left to his own devices, Kirby produced a number of incredibly striking images for DC that eclipse even his Marvel highs, full of colorful and confounding characters.
I've read a lot of Kirby comics in my life, and while I certainly don't claim that these are the be-all/end-all of his DC covers – there's far too many contenders – here's fifteen of my personal favorites, in no particular order.
Kamandi: The Last Boy On Earth #8
It's a bizarre and striking image: lion-men with rayguns pursuing a caveboy through a field of enormous presidential busts. The entire scene jumps toward the viewer, conveying a feeling of speed and action. (Enhanced by the high-contrast effect of light figures on a black background.)
And then there's the caption, a statement that perfectly reflects the strange dream-logic of the art:
"He was trapped by animals in the center of town! And why not! It was their town!"
This cover encapsulated just about everything that makes '70s Kirby covers so great: an insane idea, delivered with breathless excitement, presented in a way that assumes you're already along for the ride.
The grotesque, sneering Mantis leaps forward, pursued by Infinity Man, both bounding above a skewed, black-and-white cityscape.
Mantis' costume design is all horns and flaps and scaled armor, a hybrid of man and reptile and insect, while Infinity Man seems to have escaped from some futuristic gladiatorial arena, with his helmet and visor and chest plate.
And at the bottom of the page, the Forever People themselves, heads and names floating in space, beckoning us to come in and read.
I have no idea what's going on, but it's only 15¢ to find out! How can I resist?
Another high-impact photo-collage cover, a powerful, muscular Superman breaking through the frame, a small inset picture of the title character, and more classic Kirby salesmanship: "Don't be chicken! Read all about DOOMSDAY!"
It's a pretty convincing argument, to be sure.
Kirby's revamp of Manhunter was short-lived – in fact, the character was only featured in this one issue of DC's rotating showcase title. But be that as it may, the cover is still an outstanding example of the King's use of depth and perspective, his design sense, and his endless ability to confound.
Why is that head nailed to a wall in a cave? Why is it talking to a robot? What is that yellow thing the robot is holding? Is it even a robot, or am I just assuming that because its face is sliver? What the hell is even going on here?
A yellow-skinned beast with glowing red eyes, bared claws, and a blue cape flowing from his neck, leaps from a flaming castle toward weapon-bearing villagers (and the unsuspecting reader). It's an image that's both comfortably familiar and excitingly fresh, echoing classic black and white monster motifs while giving them a hyper-saturated four-color twist.
Not even poor reproduction and a seriously wonky coloring job could defuse the impact of this image – this was one of the first of Kirby's DC books to hit the stands, and the cover said in no uncertain terms that the Marvel Age was over, and a new era of cosmic creativity had begun.
OMAC: One Man Army Corps #6
Kirby's second wave of DC titles in the '70s may have been a step back from the universe-spanning storytelling of his aborted Fourth World saga, but they still contained more than their fair share of wild ideas. The King seemed to be firing on pure instinct by the time this issue of OMAC hit stands, like he was unleashing a half-dozen unhinged sci-fi concepts with each stroke of his pen, and seeing how many he could fit in to each and every issue.
Our escape artist hero is strapped to a giant target, while gunmen fire crossbow rocket launchers at him. A super-snazzy refugee from a beatnik renaissance faire holds Big Barda hostage, forcing her to watch the carnage that will doubtless ensue. It's a 7"x10" whirl of action, crazy concepts, and demented designs, topped off with breathless captions that I've just read three times in a row and still can't quite make sense out of.
Action-packed mayhem! Insect warriors overrun a block of Kirby's trademark squared-off buildings, while Forager and Mantis battle in the foreground. And the central figure of Orion appears to twist in three directions at once, lifting a grimacing monster with one hand, rejecting all known rules of human physique as he poses for maximum graphic impact.
Jack Kirby was a master draftsman, but he also had a knack for incorporating innovative special effects into his work, and this cover is a particularly striking example. The composition, linework, and coloring are all top-notch, but the negative-image figures pouring out toward Jimmy and Superman take the whole production to another level.
OMAC: One Man Army Corps #4
This cover is a simple demonstration of Kirby's design skill: a pair of figures battling in negative space, a multi-limbed "doomsday monster" firing bursts of flame and energy, and OMAC posed in midstride, leaning forward into the threat, ready to strike.
Kamandi: The Last Boy On Earth #24
Kirby's work tends toward the boisterous and bombastic, throwing things straight toward the viewer (in some cases, quite literally). But Kamandi #24, published toward the end of Kirby's DC tenure, takes a different approach: rather than bounding out at the unsuspecting readers, it uses character and composition to reel them in.
Kirby promised "an epic for our times" with his Fourth World saga, and nowhere is that more in evidence than the cover of New Gods #7: two titans carved from granite and steel, battling atop a field of fallen warriors, with the fate of a universe hanging in the balance.
Though it may not reach the level of brilliance of the others I've outlined, I've always had a soft spot for this cover (and, in fact, the entire toy-line tie-in series it comes from). The Super Powers series date from the latter days of Kirby's career, but is a great example of The King in "mind over matter" mode – though his health was declining, and despite some questionable anatomy, shaky perspective, and strained facial expressions, there's still an undeniable power and energy to this image that the page can barely contain. (Plus, it's Kalibak riding a dinosaur, attacking Hawkman! The seven-year-old kid inside me finds that combination irresistible.)
This is an all-time classic cover, oft homaged, referenced, and reprinted, and with good reason – while much of Kirby's DC output replaced the elegance of his Marvel years with a primal rough-hewn energy, this piece is a bridge between the eras. The inking and coloring adds polish to Kirby's forceful lines and dramatic angles, and the readers are pulled along with Mister Miracle on that rocket, blasting toward the heavens on the ride of a lifetime.