Lee & Kirby: The Narrative Techniques of Jack Kirby 2

It’s been a few weeks since I started analyzing the narrative techniques that Jack Kirby used in a particular story–this meeting between the Human Torch and Captain America (or, more properly, shared the analysis that I developed to show to younger Marvel editors.) And, honestly, part of the reason for that was some of the response to the initial installment. While most who read it seemed to take it for what it was, there were a few who excoriated it for “taking subliminal swipes at Kirby” or “spreading disinformation” because I did not properly line up with whatever their particular hard-line stance on the creative relationship between Lee and Kirby happened to be.

I’ve said it before in earlier pieces, but in the light of this, I think it bears repeating. I don’t want to attempt to litigate who did what on these stories per se. That piece, and this one, are primarily about the particular storytelling and compositional approaches that Jack Kirby employs to tell this particular story. None of that really has anything to do with Stan Lee, apart from the fact that Lee scripted this story. And while I could make a few educated guesses about the genesis of this particular tale, that’s not really what I’m here to do.

I find this extremist need to be completely in one camp or wholly out of it to be entirely self-destructive and self-defeating. Especially since we’re now past the point where there’s much of anything to be gained by it. All of the principles have passed on, and the Kirby Estate and Marvel have reached an equitable arrangement, one that acknowledges Kirby as the fundamental co-creator of these works. What else is there to gain at this point? If you want greater wealth or fame for Kirby, it’s too late–he’s no longer with us, and if you want to punish Lee, guess what?–same thing.

I think it’s always worth studying these stories to learn all that we can about them–I’m as fascinated by them as anyone. But to love Kirby does not mean you need to hate Lee, or Joe Simon, or Roy Thomas, or Larry Lieber, or John Romita, or the other names of people from that period whose recounting of what went down and how the work was created differ from how you’d prefer to believe it was. There is room enough for everybody, and it’s worth remembering that absolutely nobody working on these stories at the time had the slightest inkling that anybody would still be talking about them so many decades after the fact. Memory fades, and not a lot of this was considered important enough to remember in the first place. Largely, there were simply people using their skills to put food on the table.

In Kirby’s case, here’s some of how he went about it on this story.

Here on PAGE 10, Kirby starts with an establishing shot cribbed from old newsreel footage. The shot he’s referencing was used as stock footage in a number of comedy shorts that would have been in reruns during the early 1960s when he drew this page. Kirby didn’t swipe it or anything, but he drew upon his memory of the shot to cram an awful lot of visual exposition into that first panel in a dramatic fashion. And what a great choice that was to tilt the ground line in Panel 2, making the flying Torch figure a powerful left-to-right vector within the frame. Panel 3 shows a compressed use of Kirby having time pass within a single still shot. On the left, the crook in the passenger seat notices the Torch in pursuit of the car, and the driver is reacting a split second later. Panel 5 has a more noticeable application of this phenomenon. Here, on the left, the body language of the Torch gives us the whipping of the flaming scythe. As our eye moves right, we see the car in the split second after the blade has passed through it, slicing off its tires. And then, even further right, the driver bails out yet another second later.

On PAGE 11, Kirby once again subliminally controls the reader’s eye movements, having the Torch in te first panel gesturing directly at were he’ll be flying in the second panel, creating a vector across the page. The action in Panel 2 gets a bit too obscured by the balloons for my taste, but what can you do–the copy had to go somewhere. The bottom panel is another good example of the picture-in-picture approach. The camera starts on the left on the defeated goons, then pans right along with the Torch to where his quick conversation with the cop is the focus. As usual, Kirby is using the reader’s own reading movements to convey time, and again the right side of this panel is happening a few seconds later than the left side.

Here on PAGE 12, it’s all about camera angles and creating depth and deep space without using a horizontal–Kirby very seldom employed a tall, thin panel. So Panel 1 is a straight-on establishing shot that sets the stage. Panel 2 goes for a bird’s eye view, to reinforce the idea that something is coming in response to Cap’s summons from above. This also accentuates the vertigo shift as Kirby switches to an extreme worm’s eye view for Panel 3, with some strong forced perspective in the mix to boot. It’s a pretty bravura shot, and works more effectively than the one back on PAGE 9. This is all aided by the bird’s eye view and forced perspective on the Torch in the final panel as he chases his quarry into the sky. That tilted ground line in Panel 4 also helps, swinging the camera way around to help give a sense of the liftoff even in these relatively small panels.

PAGE 13: Another “Big Z” arrangement, concealed slightly as there’s a tilt to the top crossbar of the Z–it follows the flight path of the Torch in Panel 1 across the rocket then down to the Torch’s arm and blast in panel 2 before reversing direction. Again, it’s worth noting here that Kirby was at this point generating five to six pages of this story at a sitting, so he didn’t have a lot of time to analyze or think through every move he was making. He was going by his gut in most instances, a storytelling instinct honed over years of hard work.

PAGE 14: This page has so much amazing stuff on it, it’s almost unbelievable. Let’s start with that first panel, where Kirby gets motion out of both the Torch’s flame trail down and across the page and then a reverse-turn on the otherwise-stationary windmill just out of Cap’s positioning and the Torch’s change in direction. There’s just so much movement in this tiny still frame. The lob of the Torch’s fireball in Panel 2 carries the eye directly into Cap’s flip in Panel 3. The transition from Panel 3 to Panel 4 is astonishing–Cap’s body language and the reader’s own eye movement completes cap’s flip instinctively. There’s no other way to read these two frames, the motion is so smooth and the closure between panels so assured. When combined with Panel 2, it’s a hat trick of a sequence. The final panel is amazing as well, and contains multiple actions in that single shot. As usual, Kirby puts multiple moments in time in a single frame. Here, we begin Cap’s slide left-to-right, get to the reaction of the janitor, and then catch up with Cap to see that he’s swiped the janitors mop. It’s like a movie shot, but one that a movie couldn’t film in this manner, because we’re seeing the effects prior to the cause. Overall, this whoel page is a masterpiece of economical storytelling.

PAGE 15, and another example of multiple moments in a wide frame. Here again, I’ve taken the liberty of removing the balloons and copy from the version at the right so that we can focus on only the elements that Kirby drew. He follows the same pattern here as on the bank robbery page: starting with a straight-on establishing shot, then moving into an extreme viewpoint–this one with Cap reared back. Then he reverses the sot for the big, wide panel, creating depth through forced perspective as Cap releases his mop arrow and it flies across the room to strike the Torch, dousing is flame.

PAGE 16: And I’ve done the same thing to the balloons and copy here, in this instance largely to point out just how much Kirby was skimping on is backgrounds in this story, but ow the storytelling is so straightforward, you really don’t notice their absence. Only one panel on this page contains anything that can really be called a background proper. Kirby keeps his camera moving, creating interesting angles that give the action speed and interest. That last panel is an interesting take on the picture-in-picture approach. Here, Cap looks in his read view mirror and sees something behind him, and as the eye moves right we pan with it to see the Torch, situated perfectly to where Cap’s reverse-eyeline would be looking. This is a deceptively simple panel that’s a wonder to have pulled off.

PAGE 17: And again here, I’ve done the same thing. The top two panels use a miraculous circular composition, The Torch in the extreme foreground catches the eye’s attention first, and we follow the arc of his arm up and around Cap and his truck up and over into the next panel, where he launches himself upwards and the Torch flies into the back of the selfsame truck. It’s so smooth. The whip-crack of the Torch flying in a circle in the enclosed space in Panel 4 is blunted again by the word balloons–the eye gets the idea better in the version without copy.

PAGE 18: And finally, having exhausted his page count, Kirby brings the running chase-and-fight to a finish, Good forced perspective on that first panel. And the rest of the page forms a Big Z arrangement. I would bet all of the money in my pocket that Lee shifted that final image upward to make room for the promotional copy at the bottom, and when Kirby originally drew it, Johnny’s head was on the same line-level as the rest of the Z.

What’s amazing about Kirby isn’t simply that he would do all of this stuff so naturally and so quickly, it’s also that he was consistently this effective on sometimes hundreds of pages in a single month.

2 thoughts on “Lee & Kirby: The Narrative Techniques of Jack Kirby 2

  1. Thanks for doing these, Tom. Looking at these through your editorial eye is fascinating. And sympathies on any negative reaction you are getting. I strongly suspect I am typical of the majority of your followers. Silent for the most part, but highly appreciative.

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    1. I agree. Popular and in agreement, and therefore silent. I’m not sure I agree with some of the analysis of the pattern in the layout, but I do agree about the flow and how your eye is drawn through the panels and page. PS: That last panel on the final page, I feel was laid out purposefully to sell the concept of the new series. If you look at the number of months between this appearing on the stands and the return of cap in Avengers #4, it’s clear that they already had this in mind before this story ever hit the stands.

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