More than a few people, including myself, were excited to see patented Kirby machinery in the new Thor: Ragnarok trailer. Close-ups of the trailer and Kirby’s art were shared all over Twitter. Jack Kirby’s unique design aesthetic is something almost impossible to pull off in real life, and amazingly rare in an era of what feels like a new superhero movie every two weeks. I don’t know if it’s ever been pulled off in live-action, except possibly some of the less terrible scenes from the 1987 Masters of the Universe. His architecture is only one of the things that made Kirby’s art so unusual and interesting. There’s also his strange but amazing anatomy, his wonderfully over the top narration, his constant stream of new characters, his cosmic vistas, etc. etc. I could be here all day listing things that make Kirby so compelling. He also had a knack for establishing new characters faster than most artists can draw a single page. In his 70s work, he did this partially by using creative close-ups to single out villains.
Five pages into Kirby’s first Jimmy Olsen issue and we’re introduced to Morgan Edge, Clark Kent’s new boss and Intergang collaborator. On the next page, here, Kent leaves and we see him alone. The top two-thirds of the panel, including his eyes, are shot in darkness. Between the shadow, the big dark eyebrows, and the wrinkles on his face, he feels old and slightly decrepit. Combine that with the extreme close-up centered on his nose and it feels like he’s breathing down your neck. It’s an efficient way of establishing him as a total creep. You don’t even need his thoughts in the panel to understand he’s menacing and working against Clark. With his thoughts, you get a full picture of him. He’s not only evil, he’s a man with a plan. All the immediate danger Clark gets into is his fault. By using this angle sparingly, Kirby makes it all the more important. Even though he only shows up again once in this issue, the reader knows he’s behind much of the action. This is also enforced by him mentioning a mysterious secret and “The Wild Area”, which play out later in the issue. Combining the creepy angle with a foreshadowing monologue, and you’ve got the portrait of a villain established in one panel.
Here, in Forever People #1, Kirby introduces Bruno Mannheim, leader of Intergang. In this issue, Mannheim only shows up for a couple pages and a handful of panels to influence the action from the background. He’s not named in this issue and doesn’t interact with any of the main characters, except talking to Darkseid briefly on his futuristic walkie-talkie (which I’m sure has an official name). All of that to say, Kirby has very little narrative space to set him up as a bad guy.
Kirby slightly changes the formula of the previous close-up to make this one more active. This one is also more typical of Kirby’s close-ups. Unlike the earlier example, this one is tilted at an angle. This roughly 45 degree angle makes Mannheim seem crazy in addition to the earlier creepy old man vibes. Using words like “chick” and “whim-whams” adds to the crazy factor and creates some good oddball humor. Also, Mannheim’s eyes are wide open. Unlike Edge, who seems half-asleep, Mannheim is wide awake. Similarly, Mannheim does not think his evil thoughts, but shouts them out loud. Presumably The Forever People (who he’s spying on from like 10 feet away) should hear him, but they don’t. This is effectively an evil villain monologue, aided by the fact that he’s basically speaking his thoughts directly. The Intergang collaborators with him serve no purpose, except to provide him with someone to yell at. Even though Mannheim is no more active than Edge, he seems like it by just simply tilting the panel and changing the thought bubble to a speech bubble.
I can’t speak to Kirby’s entire body of work, but this is something cool I’ve noticed in his 70s work (my favorite period of his). Above are a couple examples from later 70s projects OMAC and Devil Dinosaur. It’s a wonderfully camp, comic-book version of a cinematic evil laugh or dramatic villain monologue. It establishes villains at lightning speed, necessary in the Fourth World books where Kirby introduced new characters and concepts on seemingly every page. Kirby uses this for particularly mid-level villains, guys who don’t take part in the fighting but influence it. They’re the middle men between real baddies like Darkseid and cannon fodder waiting to be beaten up. Most of their evil is in giving and receiving orders, and this makes talking to people actually seem ominous. I can’t recall ever seeing it used by anyone else, and certainly not with the efficiency of Kirby (but that could be said of many other things as well). For an artist known for grand landscapes and fight sequences, Kirby knew the power of zooming in. Also, these panels could make for hilarious profile pictures or reaction images.
Hopefully I’ll be back to at least semi-regular writing on here. No idea what I’ll be talking about next but it should be something fun. Remember to like Gutter Space on Facebook and follow me on Twitter for more updates.