Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Kirby Triple

Jack Kirby Week

Tonight, let's talk a little more specifically about Jack's art—to be precise, his composition. As a little stuffed bull who's tried his hoof at drawing his own (stick figure) comics, setting up a dynamic and vibrant comic book page is harder than I thought. You've got to keep the reader's eye flowing forward; you've got to draw the attention to the elements of art and word balloons in the correct order, you've got to pace the action in a superhero action comic so there's a roller-coaster thrill, especially if there's a mini-cliffhanger in the final panel of a page that makes you turn it so fast you might rip it. (Whoops, did it again!)

I wanna take a very brief and certainly uncomprehensive look at one of my favorites of comic book visual tricks that Kirby used. He didn't invent the thing, of course, but hey, it's Jack Kirby Week, so I'm gonna call it, at least for the purposes of this post

The Jack Kirby Triple!

No, that's not a super-duper cheeseburger or a three-scoop ice cream sundae. (Mmmmm, ice cream sundae!) It's what I call...well, let me start by showing you the usual format of a Jack Kirby comics page for much of his Silver Age career: a relatively simple two by three grid:

FF #35

Nothing too visually challenging there in that six-panel page, now, is there? Years later, artists like Keith Giffin and Dave Gibbons would explain that's the way they became the Brady Bunch champion the nine-panel grid page, but for Kirby, a general six-panel page was basic, simple, and...dare we say...primal enough for most of his needs. Oh yes, sometimes he'd alter that layout with a single long panel as one layer of the three, or even expand an entire panel to take up two levels...

FF #39

And then you might get a four-panel page, and, if you were good, one of those wonderful Kirby mid-comic splash pages. (If you were saintly, it might be a mind-blowing Jack Kirby photomontage!):

FF #39

But if you behaved yourself and walked the dog and took out the trash and picked up your socks from under the bed, good ol' Unca Jack might give you a Kirby Triple: a single row of three panels that bring a cinematic air to your four-color comic book:

FF #41
So! Let's look at some Kirby Triples, shall we? And let me kick off here just by saying I'm no great art critic or visual expert, and I can't give you specific historic detail or analyses of evolution of art style, influences and visual dynamism...

I just think Kirby triples are really cool.

Here's a simple but powerful Kirby Triple from the early Marvel Age of Incredible Hulk #3:
Hulk #3

(By the way, you can click on all the Kirby Triples to blow 'em up real good on their Bully-Flickr page, so's you can examine 'em in all their big-Kirby glory. Who sez this isn't the Age of Mighty Bovine Visual Generosity?)

I like that early Marvel superhero example because it does something on the static, printed page that you usually need a moving picture to portray: specific and sequential action, movement in time without movement in space as our beleaguered pal Bruce B. Hulks out so early in his career it's still relatively new to him. Note how Kirby expands the crouching figure of Banner into the huge, hulking figure of, of the Hulk in several ways: by making the character grow bigger and more muscular (green and more colorful, too), by making the figure stand up straighter in each subsequent panel, and by decreasing the amount of space given to each caption so the panel itself seems to grow. This last also draws the eye forward in a dynamic upwards and to-the-right arrow. Don't forget the last panel in violent, colorful yellow instead of placid sky-blue, which pops the Hulk's panel out from the others: aside from a probably coloring error in panel two where Banner's bare elbow appears yellow, this is the first time these two colors appear in the three-panel sequence. Pretty cool, huh?

Here's the reverse of that transformation from Hulk #4:
Hulk #4

This Kirby Triple doesn't play as many visual tricks to move the transformation along as the first, but note that as Hulk changes to Banner, the background fades from red to orange in intensity. (That's almost probably Stan Goldberg at work here rather than Jack, but it's a nice effect, right?) The three panel succession showing us the passing of time demonstrates how the Hulk reverts gradually to Banner, especially with that spooky middle panel of the pink skin gradually overtaking the green.

I like this three-panel from the same issue a lot:
Hulk #4

Mongu's dramatic entrance through an spaceship portal is stretched out in time as we not only see him emerging further in each successive panel, but the progression draws out his declaration. It allows the letters to be bigger and bolder and to give it that grand villainous pause between words that accompanies the arrival of a Marvel Age nogoodnik. Seriously, would it be half as dramatic if it were paced like this?

Fast Mongu

Or even this?

Howdy! Mongu

No. No, it would not. And that's why I'm not writing comic books.

This three-panel progression, also in Hulk #4, approximates a move camera bolted to the bottom of a spacecraft: the landing gear remains unmoving, but the background grows fast and dramatically as the craft zooms in for to land—note that you can "see" how fast the ship is moving if you realize the buildings in panel two are the same as those in panel one...just a lot closer.
Hulk #4

By the mid-1960s in Fantastic Four, Jack was using what I call the Kirby Triple for a wider range of dramatic effect. Here's a nice progression from FF #38 that shows an unknown threat approaching the Baxter Building. Kirby keeps it mysterious by having our heroes not looking out the window or at a television screen, but at a radar display showing how fast, how big this UFO gets in such a short period of time.

FF #38

And from the same issue, Jack Explains It All To Us™: the art of a complicated battle maneuver made crystal clear through a three-panel progression that puts the...oh dear...puts the spring back in Ben Grimm's step:
FF #38

That last is actually a very nice alternative to the usual technique of having Reed or Ben narrate a complicated series of steps of how they're going to fight. Kirby shows and tells in action rather than words...all in three simple panels.

But here's my favorite way (in FF #39) that Kirby uses a three-panel layer. I like to call it...The Kirby Zoom!:

FF #39

Picture a movie camera slowly pushing in on Doom during that monologue, tightening the camera on his metallic maw and filling the screen with that's powerful! Kirby adds more blacks to the panels as Vic progresses from confused to threatening, and Stan Goldberg helps out by upping the ante with a lovely blood-red background (and yellow word balloon) in the final panel. Believe me, if this happened to you in real life, you'd jump back!

Here's another great Kirby Zoom that's also an issue cliffhanger (FF #41)...
FF #41

Whoa mama! Straight up so close into the face of bad-brain-addled Ben Grimm that we can see up his nostrils! And it's not a very pretty sight! How can you tell this is Evil Ben Grimm? Simple...look how those baby blues have changed into fiery orange! That's a Thing on the edge, pal!

Here's the same cliffhanger effect applied to Uatu at the end of FF #49:

FF #49

And I'm very fond of this Kirby Triple from the grand conclusion of the Galactus Trilogy, as Johnny returns from his hyper-galactic trip, for once bringing not one of those native girls he met on the beach but the Ultimate Nullifier:
FF #50

Johnny's getting closer to us...not vice that sequence, at amazing speed and with unbelievable energy. Hey, check it out...Kirby Krackle! That's how you know it's powerful!

Let's skip ahead now to the 1970s: Kirby has moved on with equal dynamism to DC Comics, where he's building the foundations of his grand opera in four colors, the crazy likes of which will never be approximated again (sorry, Grant Morrison!): The Fourth World saga. By this point Kirby's built the art of a huge, big-ass splash page fulla action, energy, and weird alien technology to previously-unseen heights, so you get a lot of full pages like this (Forever People #6) boom-tubing out at you from the pages of DC Comics:
Forever People #6

But Kirby's still using Kirby Triples to immediate and action-packed effect. Here, in Mister Miracle #1, now you see him, now you don't, as Oberon locks Scott Free in the outhouse and prepares to roast him alive with a flamethrower. In the words of Adam Savage: don't try this trick at home!
Mister Miracle #1

...and here's a Kirby Zoom from the same issue, with all the elements of zipping in close for all the Sly Stallone Over the Top 2099 mechanical glove arm-wrestlin' action:
Mister Miracle #1

Here in New Gods #10, a Kirby Triple shows how a Mother Box smoothes and erases those ugly wrinkles and lines, taking years off your immortal life! Maybe they oughta call it Mother Botox!
New Gods #10

I think this one, from Mister Miracle #5, is the most beautiful of the Fourth World Kirby Triples: the transformation of Big Barda from heavy-metal bikinied housewife to whalin' warrior woman. It's a transformation worthy of Lynda Carter spinning around to become Wonder Woman, and you can see the sequence in your mind's eyes, filling in the blanks between the panels as her battle gear appears in place, girding (girdling?) Barda for the Big Fight.
Mister Miracle #5

Even by the mid-1980s, when Jack had gone back to Marvel and back to DC again to finish off his Fourth World saga in New Gods Deluxe #6 (and later, in The Hunger Dogs), he still hasn't forgotten the power of a nicely executed Kirby Triple:
New Gods Deluxe #6

Immediately before that, Jack's return to Marvel in the mid-1970s was often much more populated with bigger, larger panels in his work, often filled to the brim with dramatic close-ups of characters eyes: sort of the third panel of a Kirby Zoom without the buildup. Here's a typical example from Black Panther #5, one of several billion from Kirby during this period.
Black Panther #5

But as can be seen in this Falcon-a-howlin' sequence from Captain America #200, Jack hadn't abandoned the Kirby Triple or the Kirby Zoom. Put some heart into it, Sam!
Captain America #200

So: in short, a quick and very incomplete tour of Kirby Triples, as seen through the awe-filled eyes of a little stuffed bull. Like I said, I don't claim to bring any particular expertise or even a point to this post other than to say "Whoa, cool!. But consider this: Marvel really missed out on a fantastic opportunity. They should have give Kirby free reign over one of their 1970s books with orders to go wild and turn it into the craziest, zaniest Marvel comic of the post-dead-Gwen Stacy era. The only caveat they oughta have given Jack Kirby: every page must have a Kirby Triple on it.

What, d'ya think, should they have titled that comic book? Why, can't you guess?


John Wiswell said...

You don't know the joy this brought me.

Phillip said...

These Kirby posts are awesome. You're knockin' 'em outta the park yet again, Bully! Also, Marvel Triple Action? I kinda expected a link to a comic called "I'm Not Gonna Pay A Lot For This Muffler".

Harvey Jerkwater said...

The best part about going through the "Essential FF" volumes is watching Kirby evolve as an artist. He opens up more and more, the art and action get wilder, and it becomes more and more impressive.

A supercool variant on the "Kirby Triple" was his "first three pages" structure in the late seventies. PAGE ONE: Exciting splash page! PAGES TWO AND THREE: Way more exciting DOUBLE-PAGE SPLASH! Even when you know it's coming, it still hits like a runaway Buick filled with lead ingots.

To crib from the Brit-comic 2000AD, Jack Kirby's work embodies THRILL-POWER!

Evan Waters said...

I found it really interesting to look at his compositional style when looking at one of his X-MEN issues. There's definitely a storyboard feel to it.

Rodrigo Baeza said...

Very fun post! Another comic-book creator who used this storytelling device a lot was Robert Kanigher, it's easy to find several examples of this in DC's Showcase reprints of his work.

Glen David Gold said...

Sometimes there's the triple triple:

H said...

Kudos to you for finding new fun in old comics! The Kirby triple entry was one of your best Bully - and that's saying something.

Bully said...

Thanks everybody! And a big awe-filled fanbull hi to Glen David Gold for stoppin' by! I loves Carter Beats the Devil and I've just started Sunnyside. And hoo boy, that is one frenetic set of Kirby layouts you linked to! (I like Werner Roth a lot, but you can't help but wish Kirby himself had pencilled that page. You never got to see him properly take on the X-Men after he really developed his strengths at Marvel.)

Thank you one and all!

Sphinx Magoo said...

There are a few more awesome Kirby Triples you might want to consider for a future entry:

1) From Fantastic Four #6, as Namor the Sub-Mariner launches from the Baxter Building to stop Doctor Doom from pulling the building into space.

2) Another early FF sequence (also maybe from FF #6?), where the Thing is so mad at the Yancy Street Gang for pranking him with a cake in the face that he squashes his dumbbells into pancake size.

3) Another FF sequence (I think from FF #22; I remember reading it in one of the Marvel Treasury Editions) where Ben squeezes Reed into a jar and threatens to keep him there unless he promises to leave his lab.

To me, these triple panel layouts seemed to come from having the room to tell a story where Kirby was going from an 8 to 10 page story to now having 22 or so pages to play with. Plus it was a bit of his early animation background coming out.

Ah, but what do I know...?

Excellent job!