So it’s going to have to be a quickie this week. Why? Well… As it turns out, I spent most of the time I would normally spend writing this column on reading comics instead. Which, granted… “Reading Comics” is something I spend a lot of time doing in any given week. But this week is special. Because this week, I finally laid my hands on something I’ve been wanting to read for ages…
Sky Masters of the Space Force
by Dick & Dave Wood, Jack Kirby, and Wally Wood
What the hell is Sky Masters of the Space Force, you ask? Well, it’s a comic strip about a guy named Sky Masters, who… works for the Space Force. Which I suppose is obvious. Except… I always thought it was about a bunch of dudes who were known as the Sky Masters, and that’s completely wrong. Because that’s a bit too grandiose for this strip. Running for just a couple of years in the late 1950s, Sky Masters was a fairly realistic near-future look at the space race. The first storyline, for instance, is about putting the first man in orbit around the Earth. And while that feat is treated as a dangerous adventure, it’s also presented in a way that emphasizes the realities of early space travel.
I’m particularly fond of that last panel there, showing the Major’s face distorted by G forces. But I love that whole two-strip sequence. It’s dynamic, moody, incredibly detailed… six gorgeous panels of comic strip art. And that art, as you may have guessed by now, is the reason the strip is remembered at all. As I said, it only lasted a couple of years, and as that short lifespan might tell you, it didn’t have a great impact on the medium. Now, almost sixty years later, it would almost certainly have been forgotten and never seen again. Except for one thing: it was drawn by Jack Kirby and Wally Wood.
That’s an amazing combo, one that you didn’t get to see very often in regular funnybooks. A few issues of Challengers of the Unknown, and that’s it. But they’re dynamite together. It’s kind of a best of both worlds combination for an adventure strip, I think. You get the dynamism of Kirby’s pencils, with Wood’s very technical inks tightening up Kirby’s sometimes wild lines. Wood also adds a lot of texture to the art that really makes it sing. There’s evidence, in fact, that Kirby left all the detailing and spotting of blacks to his creative partner. Here are two versions of the same strip, the top one featuring just Wood’s inks of Kirby’s lines, and the bottom one showing the final product:
Huge difference. Some of the black spotting techniques Wood brings to Sky Masters are things that Kirby would slowly start adding to his own pencils as he developed his style in the Sixties. There’s some Wood effects that he never seems to use again, though, and that’s what makes this strip so exciting for an art nerd like me to look at. I’m especially taken with the way Wood would “black out” some of the Kirby tech, defining its intricacies with white outlines.
Kirby also never looked as stylish again as he did in this strip:
But the thing like the most, I think, is the way Wood drapes Kirby’s work with zip-a-tone. That’s not an effect I’ve ever seen many inkers use on Kirby, but Wood (who was, admittedly, a master of zip) works wonders with it. Check out this panel, for instance:
The zip pattern on the background machinery are an obvious use of zip, a way to add a gray tone to the art without resorting to ink washes. It looks nice. But that’s not why I’m pointing you to this particular panel. Look closely at Sky Masters’ left eye. That side of his face is partially in shadow, and to lay that shadow over the eye without blacking it out completely, Wood has laid down a tiny little piece of zip that shades it without obscuring it, giving Sky’s face just the right bit of texture to get across the sense of foreboding that panel’s trying to convey. It’s just a little thing. But it’s genius.
He also uses zip as a pattern on the curtains in the first panel of this strip…
…but that may be the least reason to look at that one. It’s just a great strip all the way around. You’ve got a bad guy with a really distinctive face that’s rendered with some of the most delicate inking I’ve ever seen laid over Kirby, that freaking FLAMING SWORD TATTOO on his hand, and then that last panel where he explodes into action. Check out the effect around his hand in that last panel, too. The way Wood has feathered the whites and blacks out at the edges is just crazy-looking!
And speaking of crazy-looking stuff, check out this nightmare strip that comes just a few weeks into the run:
Guh. SO good.
And that’s the level at which I expected to enjoy the Sky Masters collection in general: pretty to look at, but maybe not so much fun to read. Most comic strip collections – adventure strip collections, anyway – are a bit of a chore. Because of the realities of daily syndication, most strips are bogged down with recap and exposition. Read daily, that’s a helpful reminder of where the story’s been. Read all at once in book form, though, it’s tedious beyond belief. I have a collection of the Archie Goodwin / Al Williamson run on Secret Agent X-9, for instance, and though it’s a beautiful strip filled with exciting adventure, I just can’t sit down and read it.
So I was surprised to find that’s not the case with Sky Masters. The story zips along at a brisk, exciting pace, and I’m not being reminded of the plot every three panels. It’s pretty great. Kirby co-plotted the strip with writers Dave and Dick Wood (no relation to Wally), who also scripted many of his Challengers of the Unknown comics. That lack of constant re-cap may have hurt it in the papers, of course, but it’s a win for me now. So I’ll take it.
I missed this collection when it initially came out (after multiple delays) late last year. But it looks like they’ll be following it up soon with a full color collection of the Sunday strips…
…and I’ll be trying to lay hands on that one in a more timely manner. I mean… As exciting as they made getting a man into orbit, I can only imagine how awesome their moon landing would be!