Jack Kirby: The Threshold of Belief
By Andrew Baron
New Gods #5
When I decided to devote most of my creative life to painting, I was and continue to be inspired by an artist who worked/slaved in the field of comic books, a field that was constantly derided and misunderstood by my “fine art” instructors and peers. It was cool to quote Nietzsche and Derrida, but better not to mention that you were into comics. I assume that nothing has really changed in this regard, despite the lip service that the art world condescends to give “low” culture every now and then.
Reaping the Whirlwind
oil on canvas
142 x 213 cm (56 x 84 inches)
Much has been written about the life and work of Jack Kirby (b. 1917, d. 1994), a titanic presence in comics from the early 40’s through the 80’s, so I won’t attempt much of a recap of his career other than to say that he was the architect and creator of numerous genres of comics, innumerable characters, and thousands of stories. Beyond being the architect of much of the Marvel universe, he created other more idiosyncratic (and arguably better) projects like the New Gods in the 70’s. I should emphasize that because he left his stamp on so many kinds of comics over such a long period (later mostly superhero and science fiction, but also romance, horror and western genres), it is difficult to exaggerate how instrumental Kirby was to the development of the grammar of the comics medium.
When I was a kid browsing through the comics rack at the local drugstore, I was immediately drawn to and repelled by Kirby’s work. He had entered his mature “later” period in the early 70’s, where his drawing had become more abstract and propulsive. His work was not executed in the smooth, anodyne style that characterized so many of his peers’ work. While other artists depicted their super-powered characters as benevolent representatives from a public service message, Kirby’s characters were heroic but not especially pretty and often greatly conflicted.
They seemed built to truly hand out a beat-down - agents of destruction and blunt force, as if made from an aggregate of granite and twisted metal. His comics were built from a reality that was different than the agreed-upon version that I would see in ads, movies, television and other comics. Jack Kirby’s stories just seemed to exist in their own universe, a universe ruled by violence, tragedy and wonder with big feelings and concepts that deeply resonated with me in a way that I could not and still cannot really pinpoint. And he created this universe panel-by-panel, page-by-page. Much is said about Picasso’s productivity, but he’s an absolute piker next to Jack Kirby, who created millions of drawings in his lifetime (and of arguably more consistent quality).
Captain Victory #10
Yes, you could and can dismiss his work as silly, with its often-stilted operatic dialogue, its “unrealistic” portrayals of human anatomy, outlandish concepts and defiance of physics. But I would argue that it’s much like a first-year art student dismissing a painting by Jackson Pollack or DeKooning (Guilty – hey, I was 18 and “uncultured”). Because at some point, you have to buy in to something in order to “get” what makes it vital - you have to say “yes” to something. You have to cross the threshold of belief. Otherwise, it’s just no, no, no, and you don’t go anywhere. No Coltrane, no DeKooning, no nothing - and so you end up knowing nothing.
And if you bought into this Kirby universe as I did, you realized that you were getting something truly original, something beyond mere style – something internally consistent and authentic.
This is a key point for me when I look at the work of any artist: Is the work authentic? Is it real? If I “buy in” to this or that artist’s vision, will it open up a door for me, or will I be left holding the bag? How deep does it take me? And the horribly passé idea: Did the artist care or was he or she just hacking it out?
Andrew Baron (US)
oil on panel
162,5 x 122 cm (64 x 48 inches)
When I reflect on my own work, I can see the formal influence of Jack Kirby – the fondness for chunky forms, the desire for blunt impact. But beyond these slim stylistic similarities, Kirby’s work forces me to challenge myself – does this feel real? If not, why not?
Andrew Baron, 2015
New Gods #7