On The Challengers Of The Unknown, Green Arrow & House Of Mystery: Jack Kirby’s Comics In August 1958 (2.)

In which the blogger continues to attempt to find his feet where Jack Kirby’s immediately pre-Marvel Revolution career is concerned;

(continued from here)

In the comics new to the newsstands and spinner racks of August 1958, Kirby’s work appeared in the titles of no other publisher but DC. For the fourth issue of the bimonthly Challengers Of The Unknown #4, Kirby provided the cover’s pencils and inks and the 24 page interior story for which he created both script and pencils. For the 6 page Green Arrow back-up features in World’s Finest Comics #97 and Adventure Comics #253, Kirby, with the assistance of his wife Roz with spot blacks, provided both pencils and inks. For the cover of House Of Mystery #57, he again provided both pencils and inks. In short, the month saw the legendarily prolific Kirby provide just 2 covers and 35 interior pages for the marketplace. Even given his scripting and inking responsibilities, it was far, far less than Kirby could have produced for DC. No wonder then, as we’ll return to next week, he had already begun, albeit reluctantly, to provide Atlas/Marvel Comics with as yet-unpublished new material.

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Despite the constraints that DC placed upon what Kirby could and shouldn’t do on the page, the quality of his storytelling in these stories is in places quite breathtaking. In collaboration with the almost hyper-realist inking of Wally Wood on Challengers Of The Unknown \4, Kirby created several sumptuously widescreen splash pages. One thrillingly features a chariot ridden by the Challengers and racing through an Ancient Greek city while enraged citizens attempt to violently bring it to a halt. Another, in the form of a dramatic low angle shot, presents a humblingly enormous future megalopolis that completely dwarfs the comic’s heroic stars. Yet comparing The Wizard Of Time with earlier Kirby-led Challengers stories, there’s a distinct sense that he’s been advised to reign in his narrative ambition. Unlike the likes of 1957’s Ultivac Is Loose, from Showcase #7, Kirby’s panel layout was now entirely regularised and more typical of DC’s period approach. Similarly, he was now saving his most dramatic and spectacular designs for whole-sided chapter pages. It was as if DC simply couldn’t cope with their comics being actively exciting. Even with its rather prosaic inks from Marvin Stein, the Ultivac tale had featured thrillingly jigsawing panel layouts and some truly spectacular action shots which intensified the experience of the story proper. (See the scan below and its final panel, with its celestial hand that, at first glance, might be thought to have come from a turn-of-the-70s Fourth World title or a mid-70s issue of The Eternals.) But just a year and a half later, things have been considerably calmed down, and it’s hard to imagine that this was of the artist’s doing. Of course, Kirby being Kirby, his panel-to-panel storytelling remained dynamic and compelling. And yet, there’s often a sense of a deliberate and reluctant moderation that shaves away a key degree of Kirby’s characteristic mix of immediacy, vitality and invention. Challengers Of The Unknown #4 is undeniably fine work. But, dialled back as it in places appears to be, it isn’t always Kirby at his very best.

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The month’s Green Arrow tales are another matter, showing as they do Kirby’s considerable skills as an inker of his own pencils while reflecting what can seem to be a somewhat different set of editorial directions. Kirby’s inks are, as might be expected, direct and to-the-point. Not for him the illustrative elegance and luxuriousness of Wood’s finishes, although we know Kirby thought highly of his artistry and had recruited him for the Sky Masters newspaper strip. But what Kirby’s inks might lose in terms of opulence and precision, they gain in terms of an utterly compelling litheness. Kirby’s artwork being so rich in its potential, every inker cannot help but pursue just a fraction of what his pencils suggest. For some, if indeed many, inkers, and Chic Stone, a personal favourite, comes particularly to mind, it’s a monumental and even partially static essence that’s abstracted from the pencilled page. But Kirby’s inks in the period are frequently all about movement, about deceptively simple and relatively sparse linework mixed with adroitly applied blocks of shadows to create both exciting forward momentum and satisfying depth. The Mechanical Octopus in World’s Finest Comics #97, for example, never ceases to ripple and slither with purpose and menace. While clearly an example of nuts’n’bolts technology, it also maintains a marvellous disconcerting sense of otherness, a subtle and highly effective suggestion of menace that transforms a rather silly throwaway gimmick in France E. Herron’s script into a memorable, otherworldly threat.

--Yet Kirby’s Green Arrow tales of the period also feature artwork that often feels awkwardly direct and even unhelpfully simplified. Put simply, there’s that recurrent sense of an inappropriate and most unKirby degree of politeness. Compared to the same month’s Challengers tale, there’s an even more pronounced tendency towards restriction, even abstinence. A less varied selection of camera angles on individual pages is in use than would typically be true for Kirby’s work. If the stories are rarely anything less or more than slight slithers of fun, Kirby’s most inventive and expansive instincts are expressed pretty much exclusively in establishing shots.  (The far greater page count in Challengers Of The Unknown at least meant that splash pages could be put to more expansive use, but the five and six-page Green Arrow tales left Kirby few opportunities to express himself in such a way.)  As if squinting children might lose focus and interest when faced with anything they couldn’t process with a single glance, action is made to occupy the foreground of many panels. Throughout his eleven Arrow stories, Kirby’s characters are consistently placed front-and-centre in frames where, elsewhere, he might well have added a greater selection of mid and long-range shots. But with The Menace Of The Mechanical Octopus, we do, thankfully, witness Kirby’s unique skill and ambition breaking irresistibly through the dictaks, direct or indirect, of DC’s taste police. Four times in six pages he’s given the chance to let loose with establishing shots presented in widescreen, page-wide horizontal frames. Four times he produces work that’s amazingly compelling. True, it draws off artistic schemas that Kirby had long since developed. But in each of these frames, he presents us with a fully realised and thrilling world foregrounded imaginatively by exciting events, as you can see in the scan immediately above.

--------All of these four panels were one-off scenes. Kirby could have produced artwork for them that obscured the challenges in the script and minimised his workload. He certainly wasn’t ever going to return to the locales he sketched out in any detail again. In short, any effort he invested wasn’t going to directly benefit any of his future endeavours. Yet he clearly couldn’t restrain himself. Perhaps he never even thought to. The results stand with anything he ever produced.

Tellingly, The Menace Of The Mechanical Octopus would be the last time that such wonderful storytelling appeared to this degree in Kirby’s regrettably short and constrained Green Arrow run. With each subsequent tale on the character, his work became less and less ambitious and eye-catching. And then, when they were done, he was, unwillingly, pretty much done with Green Arrow forever, beyond Kirby’s Super-Powers work at the tail-end of his career in the 1980s.

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And then lastly for this month, there’s Kirby’s cover for the thriller anthology House Of Mystery #79. It may just be one of the least interesting covers that he ever produced, outside of several of the later Prize romance titles. At a first and passing glance, the work might even be an uncharacteristically bland piece by Carmine Infantino, although Kirby’s hand swiftly reveals itself. Yet it sadly suggests a corporate sensibility that abhors shadows and scurries wherever possible for sunlight, that wants monsters without threat and the suggestion of danger without any real possibility of suffering. It’s easy to savour the simple charm of Kirby’s composition and figure work here, if we ignore that clunkingly unconvincing monster, the design of which wouldn’t have been Kirby’s responsibility. But this is a Kirby page which has been almost completely scrubbed free of Kirbyness. Aside from the tension in the frame of the boat-driving figure, it’s an unmemorable if generally pleasant cover. Even now, some 60 years later, it’s hard not to think that’s a terrible waste of Kirby’s talent.

to be continued, with a look at Kirby’s relationship with several of DC’s editors during the period;

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