Superboy Did It, Jimmy Olsen & Lois Lane Tried, The Challengers Fell Short: On Kirby’s DC Covers 1957-9 (Part 1)

8

1.

June/July 1959’s Challengers Of The Unknown #8 contained the very last new Jack Kirby work to appear in a DC Comic until 1970. It’s hard not to regard its cover as a prime example of the vitiating effect of DC’s constant attempts to rein in Kirby’s dynamic style. It is, all at the same time, both obviously Kirbyesque and yet, in certain key aspects, very much not. Throughout his career, a great deal of Kirby’s very finest work is marked by the way in which he emphasised the immediacy and intensity of jeopardy. In the above, he appears to be quite deliberately minimising both. The danger posed by the alien Juhl is of course clear. But Kirby’s composition ensures that the threat remains as nominal as it’s obvious. Juhl himself is placed in the bottom right corner of the cover, his back largely to the reader, his expression largely impossibly to read. If there’s a sense of the eerie about his elongated right arm and fingers, it’s a particularly discreet expression of menace. As the cover’s nominal antagonist, poor Juhl is hardly imposing, let alone intimidating.

Similarly, the Challengers themselves appear to have been presented in a such a way as to downplay rather than emphasise the desperate nature of their plight. An establishing shot presented from a high angle, the composition diminishes the drama of the events by portraying the Challengers as dwarfed by the situation, static in its wake and powerless to effect it. Had Kirby chosen to crop the scene until the Challengers filled the page, it would have at least increased our ability to empathise with them. For the relevant splash page inside CotU#8, Kirby did indeed opt for a far more intense, closely focused and action-drenched design, as you can see in the scan directly below. (Some aspects of a DC Comics story could, it seems, be allowed to be more dramatic than others. But as Kirby’s run continued, only the splash pages consistently featured his work at anything like its most striking.) With a touch of work to accommodate the title’s logo and the like, the title page of The Prisoners Of Robot Planet would have surely made for a far more interesting and exciting cover. (*1) For on there, flying off into the air against the Challenger’s will is anything but a sedate and resigned business.

*1 – Looking at it, and considering the most unKirby-like dead space in the side’s bottom quarter, I can’t help but wonder whether it was a cover proposal that ended up being repurposed as an interior page.

7uAs readers, you and I might regard the business of being hurled into orbit while trapped in a transparent globe as an excitingly terrifying prospect. At the very least, it might provoke anger, even rage, and a determination amongst the Challengers to overcome the odds against them. What is more compelling in a boy’s own action/adventure tale than heroic figures who remain determined to win out despite obvious suffering? But Ace Morgan’s expression as he’s hurled into the void barely even transmits a trace of disconcertion. Nor does his posture indicate anything more pressing than a faint anxiety about falling forwards. So too with his fellows. They’re facing an appalling fate, but they might as well be considering their place in a queue for a bus that’s a few minutes late after a tiring day at the office. Even the working of the mechanism by which the Challengers are being sent skywards seems, for all its hypertechnological intricacy, designed to be as everyday as possible. It’s a machine which might, were it not being appropriated to fly adventurers into orbit against their will, just as easily be used to safely transport chicken eggs or fragile porcelain from a warehouse to a suburban kitchen. It doesn’t scream ‘weapon’ and it doesn’t insist ‘danger’. It’s just a piece of stage set, potentially of interest and yet free of anything that might appear too vigorous and threatening for the company and the time.

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2.

The greatest measure of drama, such as it is, on the cover is conveyed by the text. The given title – Prisoners of Robot Planet – promises a thrilling confection that is nowhere else alluded to. In the dialogue given to Rocky Davis, we are given a suggestion of the vigour that the art itself lacks. ‘Ace’, we’re told, ‘is being shot off into outer space’, although the scene suggests something far less urgent. In truth, the perspective in Kirby’s cover is confusing. The impression is, at first glance, that Ace is being thrust upwards, and yet, the force lines from Juhl’s machine insist that he should be heading off in direction of the cover’s left-side edge. It’s a confusion that, yet again, minimises the drama in the scene. Whatever else the artwork might suggest, it isn’t portraying Ace ascending at any intimidating speed. Efficiency rather than velocity appears to be the suggestion here.

In common with many of the Superman family titles of the period, as edited by the despotic and yet undeniably able Mort Weisinger, the cover, or at least its text, presents a two-stage mystery designed to hook the casual reader. Stage one involves the setting out of a eye-catchingly compelling and enigmatic situation. This was traditionally executed in a predominantly visual manner. Stage two required the trailing of a further and compelling escalation of the situation, and that tended to be delivered via word balloon, text box or title. But with CotU#8, the art and the text fail to work smoothly together. The result is that the two-stage trick falls flat. The visuals are potentially compelling where stage one is concerned, but the potential for energy and excitement are, as I’ve written, dialled back. We’re given a potentially interesting hook, but it isn’t nearly as compelling as it could have been. As Weisinger appears to have frequently insisted upon, that first stage had to be immediate and intense. As for the second stage, which kicks in on this CotU cover when the text declares it’s the Challengers ‘turn next’, the art implies that it’s more of an inconvenience than a terrible fate. Sadly, there’s nothing on the cover to suggest anything more dramatic is going to happen in space beyond the stoic Challengers floating around in their round plasticky balls. It is undoubtedly a peril, but it’s hardly one to set a reader’s imagination ablaze.

The cover is beautiful, of course, in a frozen, lifeless fashion. How could it be otherwise, with Kirby’s pencils matched to Wally Wood’s gloriously cultured inks? But it’s neither an example of Kirby at his kinetic best or of the two-stage cover hook at its most effective. In the next few posts, I’d like to take to chance to discuss Kirby’s covers from the period and the way in which DC Comics seemed to have restrained many of his work’s very finest qualities. In doing so, I’ll also look at far more compelling covers that he, with a series of collaborators, produced for lines such as Mainline and Harvey.

But as for how the two-stage method of constructing a compelling cover worked at its best for DC comics during the late 50s, we might turn to several Superman family covers from the same period.

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3.

Here, in Curt Swan and Stan Kaye’s cover to June 1959’s Superboy #73, we can see the two-stage model played to perfection. Firstly, we’re presented with a compelling enigma that challenges the character’s status quo: why has Superboy locked himself in a ‘glass dome’ and how does it connect to the experiments he’s running? Secondly, is Superboy going to save the plummeting plane and its occupants, given how focused he appears to be upon his test tubes and mixing glass. Within the range allowed by DC’s then-norms, the emotional states of the characters are obvious and telling: Ma and Pa Kent are perplexed and worried, the pleading onlooker is anxious and concerned. Best of all, the two stages are visually represented in a single, easy-to-grasp shot that, while relying on text clues, rests predominantly upon immediately grasped visual cues. The drama of the scene is so carefully and successfully designed and executed that we can easily imagine the consequences of Superboy either acting or not to rescue the plane. All in all, it’s a masterpiece of child-snaring hooks.

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For a less successful application of what I’ve come to think of as the Weisinger formula, we might consider the same month’s Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen #37. (It’s one of several Superman family books that strayed from the two-stage model at the time.) Here, the same artistic team of Curt Swan and Stan Kaye provide us with a clear stage one composed of two enigmas; how has Jimmy Olsen become a stretchable superhero and why is he interfering with Superman’s baseball game? It’s an arresting enough image, in the context of the age, but it lacks the narrative drive of the best examples of Weisinger-era Superman covers. The problem is that two enigmas are presented without any real indication of what comes next. It’s as if the concern was to explain in text what was obvious in the art – namely, Olsen’s superpowers and behaviour – which left no space to precisely trail the next dramatic situation. Had the cover featured Olsen thinking or saying that he intended to continue to ruin Superman’s charity game, or anything of the sort, then it would have functioned far more effectively. Had there been a suggestion that theplan would have involved a particular visual gimmik, even better.

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Somewhere between the effectiveness of the two above covers lies the Swan/Kaye cover to Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane #10. In it, we’re given a clear first-stage problem, namely that Lois Lane is now a little pre-vocal baby, but the second stage teaser is complicated and thereby confusing. Two immediate problems are raised: how can Lois return to her chronological age and how can she thwart Lana Lang’s designs? While the question of whether a plane will be allowed to crash or not is clear-cut and involving, the gumbo of possible future developments that are suggested here is hard to make clear sense of. If the future can’t be imagined, or so the model’s logic appears to run, then the cover’s effectiveness is limited.

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Finally, from the previous year, another Swan/Kaye cover, to Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane #243. It’s one which shows that the method’s second-stage need not necessarily suggest a easily-imagined future development in largely visual terms. Instead, it can point in the direction of a series of plot twists working within an already established tradition. Here, the first-stage is, again, obvious: Superman has become a humanoid lion! The emotional charge offered by Lois’ shock and Superman’s dismay helps sells the set-up. The second-stage is delivered via word balloon, as Superman announces that he and Lois are now doomed to play out ‘a modern version of beauty and the beast’. On reflection, it’s to be wondered whether the youngsters that the cover was aimed at would recognise the reference to the fairy tale, or, if so, regard its plot twists as a particularly thrilling prospect. But even if they didn’t, there’s an intriguing sense of a malicious fate oppressing the two chaste lovers at play. (Lois Lane, of course, would probably be thrilled by the prospect of saving Superman with her tears and, as a reward, winning him as her husband.) If not an entirely successful example of the two-stage model, it does point to the variety of ways in which it could be put into practise.

Pleased don’t let me appear to be exaggerating the degree to which the two-stage approach was used. I’m certainly not arguing that all of the Weisinger-led covers during his long tenure in the Superman office conformed to this model. From what I’ve recently seen, it appears that the two-stage principle was far more common in, say, 1958 than 1959, which are the years I’ve recently been writing about. When I have a moment, which may be awhile, I’d like to dig further into the matter. After all, the Weisinger-era covers are nothing if not fun!

But to return to the matter at hand, the next installment of this Kirby-centric piece will return to Kirby’s covers, CotU and not, during the period 1954-9, and the way in which the King’s style appears to have been corporately restrained during those years.

to be continued;

 

 

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