One day after what would have been his 98th birthday, I went to the official opening of “Comic Book Apocalypse: The Graphic World of Jack Kirby,” an exhibit in the CSUN Art Galleries at Cal State Northridge, here in the San Fernando Valley. The show runs through October 10, and if you have any interest in comic-book art — and even if you don’t — I recommend you go.
I say that because you’ll gain a new and greater understanding of an artist whose impact can’t be — shouldn’t be — underestimated. Kirby wasn’t just a great comics artist, wasn’t just a great innovator, he was a brilliant mind who was able to create new myths for our time. Moreso than even Philip K. Dick and H.P. Lovecraft, artists similarly stuck in a creative ghetto whose ideas seeped deep into our collective subconscious, Kirby created whole universes that are now accepted as givens.
While the exhibit covers the length of Kirby’s 50-year career, starting in the 1940s, it dwells on four particular series: ”Fantastic Four,” “Thor,” the New Gods titles (“New Gods,” “Forever People,” “Mister Miracle” and Kirby’s run on “Jimmy Olsen”) and “Kamandi.”
To me, “Fantastic Four” remains the high-water mark; the example of a space-traveling team of science explorers who meet new cultures far and wide while striving to represent us in a noble fashion left an indelible mark upon me. The series also introduced: Black Panther and Wakanda, the Inhumans, the Silver Surfer, Galactus, Ronan the Accuser, the Silver Surfer, the Skrulls, Doctor Doom, and many more. All of these have already been in major motion pictures, or soon will be. All of them were primarily created by Jack Kirby.
(Kirby also co-created almost every important Marvel character from 1958 to 1970, and many, many important DC characters in the five years he was there as well.)
I was thrilled to see so much original artwork, some in pencil but most of it inked by an array of Kirby’s primary inkers (the delightful Joe Sinnott on “Fantastic Four,” Mike Royer on the New Gods titles and “Kamandi,” and the regrettable Vinnie Colletta on “Thor.” Seeing Kirby’s originals inked under different hands gave me the opportunity to discuss the different styles with my daughter Emma and friend Ross, who went with me. The exhibit includes several examples of Colletta having erased some of Kirby’s detail work underneath, so that he could finish the job more quickly.
I also learned some things. “Thor,” which began more as a modern-day Norse fable, transmuted into a trippy science fiction epic that featured the title character meeting embodiments of fate and the universe out in outer space. Few among us would take ancient Norse gods and put them in outer space, but that’s what a mind that worked by leaps and bounds did. What I learned seems obvious in retrospect: that Kirby’s Fourth World saga was essentially a sequel to “Thor,” in which these gods were dead or dying, and new gods created, against the backdrop of technological advancement. (Kirby may have predicted the iPhone in creating the Mother Box, which is handheld and connects to all knowledge. Judging from the actions of my youngest, it’s impossible to wean someone off it.)
I tried to share with Emma what it felt like, at age 10 or so, to get treasured old “Fantastic Four” comics in the mail from mail-order king Robert Bell in Happauge, NY, comics that I had scrimped and saved and sent away for, how incredibly exciting it was to see a padded envelope waiting for me in the mailbox and knowing what was inside. This was before the internet, of course, before everything was available instantly, before instant gratification. Prying the staples off the outside of a padded mailer and opening its flap was like unsealing Tutankhamun’s tomb (with a similar scent of moldering discovery leaking out).
The dynamism of Kirby’s artwork never fails to impress. But it’s his vision, his wild inventiveness, his restless intellect, his brilliance in predicting and creating all these things that fascinate us (and drive the economy), that’s truly striking. That vision is so large it’s barely containable within the walls of the gallery.