Recent Dorkiness

Kirby, King of… Horror?!?

Jack Kirby's is not a name you often think of when you think of horror. Partially, that's because he didn't do a lot of it. But also, it might be because horror wasn't really his forte. Kirby was a fighter by nature, and his stories were usually centered on positive struggle and perseverance in the face of oppression, while horror is often about negativity and human helplessness in the face of great evil. So the marriage of Kirby and horror was always going to be a rocky one. But he did do horror work, and like every other genre the funnybook business threw at him, Kirby made it his own. But I'm getting ahead of myself here. Before he could master horror, he had to work within its bounds for a while. In the 1940s, Kirby and Joe Simon, his greatest collaborator of the era, had created many classic super hero characters (most notably Captain America), and then gone on to invent the romance comic in the post-war years. In the first half of the 1950s, however, horror comics were in vogue, and like just about every other funnybook pro of the era, Simon and Kirby did a horror comic: Black Magic. Kirby provided most, if not all, of the covers for the series, but he seldom did interior art. This was reportedly because he was too busy doing pages for the more profitable war and romance books he and Simon were responsible for, but some have suggested it was really because Kirby wasn't very good at horror. I think the cover above puts the lie to that notion, however, because that's a fine horror illustration. The smoke and the melting candles are nice touches, but that demon is really top-notch, gangly and evil and moodily-lit in perfect measure. So obviously, he had a talent for this sort of thing.

His rare interiors show that he was conversant with what makes horror visuals work, too, be they standard horror tropes…

…or pure, weird (and decidedly un-Kirby-like) nightmare fuel:

Black Magic gave Kirby a chance to show off his prodigious (if seldom-displayed) skills at caricature, too. Fifties funnybook horror was obsessed with deformities and inbred freaks, after all, and Kirby handled those kinds of grotesqueries with aplomb. Check out this cover for Black Magic 17, for instance:

I love that little guy! Short twisted legs, long spindly arms, microcephalic cranium…It’s like God slapped a shrunken head on a little yellow goblin and called it a day! Awesome! I also love that, though his family didn’t see fit to give him a shirt to wear, they did provide him with a fancy red sash to hold his pants up!

Looking at this piece a little more deeply, though, reveals it to be a damned impressive cover on the whole. Kirby gives us a complete horror story here, and if it’s one that we’ve all seen before (family freak locked in the attic), it’s Kirby’s method of telling that story that makes this image so arresting: the way the daughter’s being dragged up the stairs by her wrist, and the way she doesn’t even get to finish her stammering protestation. He’s captured the exact moment that a young girl’s innocence is destroyed forever, the moment just before the screaming starts. And that’s way more horrifying than the freak in foreground could ever be.

That’s not to knock freaks, however…

I include this cover from Black Magic 29 not just because it’s got a couple of really grotesque dudes on it, but because of the story behind it. The cover story here, “Beautiful Freak,” was one of the horror comics entered into evidence in the Senate Subcommittee hearings that lead to the establishment of the Comics Code Authority. It’s the uplifting tale of a man who falls in love with a beautiful young lady who tends a sanitarium for the physically-deformed… Until it’s revealed that beneath her dress lurks the most horrifying deformity of all, a deformity so apalling that it drives Our Hero to BRUTALLY MURDER HER! The members of the subcommittee found this story particularly repugnant, and so it represents the King’s one contribution to the hysteria that almost destroyed the funnybook business. But, hey! At least it inspired Charles Burns to do Black Hole!

(Actually, I have no idea if Burns even knows that "Beautiful Freak" exists. But any excuse to post images from that book...)

At any rate… The establishment of the Comics Code killed Black Magic like it did all the other horror comics of the Fifties. Kirby moved on to the giant monster comics that dominated the back half of that decade, and in the Sixties went on to reinvent super hero storytelling language (you know, just another decade in a career like Kirby’s). He didn’t return to horror again until the Seventies, when he gave us this unassuming chap:

Heh. That, of course, is Etrigan the Demon, star of the appropriately-titled funnybook series The Demon. It was an odd book, an uneasy hybrid that juxtaposed classic horror imagery with super heroes, a mix that Kirby didn’t always have the best grasp of. So his skewed judgment sometimes lead to covers like this one…

Because the gothic witch stuff is not enough. You've also got to have some goon in spandex hurling giant rocks at you.

 …and characters with names that only Kirby (or a five-year-old) would consider appropriate for publication.

I dunno. Maybe that’s all you can expect from a character design that’s almost completely ripped off from an old Hal Foster Prince Valiant strip:

That's right. Etrigan's ears are actually duck feet.
No, I can't ever look at him the same way again, either...

At least that kind of explains why Merlin is a character in this book…

Of course, it’s not all bad. On The Demon, Kirby melded horror imagery with his own peculiar obsessions and prodigious imagination, and that lead to places you never saw The King go anywhere else. On this book, he gave us the terrifyingly bizarre…

click to embiggen... and prepare for nightmares!

…and the bizzarely terrifying.

GAH!

The series also features a couple of my favorite of Kirby’s signature two-page spreads, the first of which is submitted for your approval in glorious black and white:

Click to embiggen. You'll be glad you did.

Man, I love looking at Kirby’s original art. He never had such a fine line that details dropped out in color publication, but sometimes the raw uncolored artwork makes the dynamics of his work really leap out at you. I love the multiple layers of action in this piece, for instance, and how it gives you so very much to look at without getting in the way of the composition. Midget-Monster! Lizard-guy! Pointy-headed screamy-man! Lurking hunchback-ninja! Evil wizard-doctor with awesome crab-claw grabby thing! And WHAT IN THE NAME OF GOD IS UP WITH THAT THING ON THE TABLE?!!?

Much as I love that spread, though, this next one REALLY knocks my socks off:

Click to embiggen the Hell-Thing!

Hot damn! Here we’ve got the Kirby design aesthetic wedded to horror imagery in a way he seldom pulled off. I mean, my god! Just LOOK at that thing! It’s like the distilled essense of heavy metal cool! You’ve got weird evil heads and giant skulls supported by Kirbyesque arches and fillagree, you’ve got awesome screaming blue face masks, you’ve got an evil puppet dangling off it… Hell, you’ve even got AN OPEN FLAME at the bottom!

And then… Over to one side… You’ve got this:

Alright, seriously. What. The. Fuck.

“Jack Kirby! You’ve just designed an instrument of perfect evil symmetry! What’re you gonna do now?”

“Well, I was thinkin’ that I might go down here in this one corner and add a weird little demon-pig with a spork-tail and the head of an evil sorcerer. And just for kicks, I think I’m gonna give him big bushy eyebrows and a giant-ass handlebar mustache. Just to… you know… top things off.”

And somehow, some way, against all odds or common sense… It works.

This is the magic of Jack Kirby. This is why he is, and will forever be, The King.

And with that, I bid you adieu.

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About Mark Brett (408 Articles)
Shaved Yeti. Alien. Writer of stuff. Read my fiction at http://reportsfromthefieldblog.wordpress.com/. Read my thoughts on comic books and other dork culture ephemera at https://dorkforty.wordpress.com/.

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