Kirby Cover Tributes

By | Saturday, August 28, 2010 Leave a Comment
Today, of course, would have been Jack Kirby's 93rd birthday. I'm still super-hectic and don't have time to do something clever/original, so here's a piece I wrote several years ago discussing what is perhaps Kirby's most iconic cover: Fantastic Four #1.

Comic books covers are often one of the most memorable aspects of any title. It is the first image one sees and generally sums up the whole issue with that single image. Jack Kirby, with his powerful and creative layouts, has created some of the industries most memorable images in his covers. Many of those covers are so powerful that other artists have used Kirby's layouts in honor of him even decades after they were first created.

One of Kirby's most notable (and duplicated) covers is that of Fantastic Four #1. Nearly every serious comic book collector is at familiar with this image, but perhaps not with some of the stories behind it.

Marvel Comics had been producing comics for some time (under the names Atlas and Timely). Most of their stories in those comics were formulae. A terrifying monster or alien attacks and is defeated by the ingenuity of one man about eight pages later. Although exact nature of how the idea of the Fantatsic Four came into being is somewhat shrouded with contradicting details, it is fairly evident that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were trying to utilize some of the popularity that was garnered by DC's Justice League of America.

What if JLA was a fluke? What if people still wanted monster stories? Kirby knew that the Fantastic Four were different and might not be taken well. To help retain the readers who had grown to love their monster stories, he not only added one of the Mole Man's creatures to the cover, but he also gave it a very prominent and central position. He also developed the Thing as a grotesquely disfigured being. Lee and Kirby's uncertainty with the superhero motif is also evident in their second comic book creation -- the Hulk.

The artwork that was eventually used as the cover for Fantastic Four #1 was not exactly Kirby's original design. His original submission only had three bystanders and the rightmost one was on his knees facing away from the reader. This cover can be seen in the Marvel Masterworks reproduction and as a poster that was produced in the early 1980s. I have also reproduced a copy of it, as well as the original printed version and several tributes, below.

The position change of the rightmost pedestrian is quite understandable. In his original kneeling position, not only is he facing away from the reader but his left foot awkwardly hangs over Mr. Fantastic's word balloon. The addition of the police officer was most likely another design decision. The white space between the monster and the nearest building's corner is essentially a glaring dead space without someone to fill it. However adding just the officer spreads out the onlookers a little too evenly, which tends to detract from the eye's flow over the page. Kirby, it seems, added the last bystander to break up the others' spacing.

Curiously, a slightly altered version was released as part of Golden's record series of the 1960s. The reproduction that accompanied the record shows Kirby's original version (with three bystanders) with some alterations apparently made by Golden. The ommission of the 10 cent price tag was obviously a financial decision so people wouldn't mistakenly charge such a low price for a vinyl album. The unusual addition though is that of the police officer that Kirby had added to the first produced piece. While standing in the same position and pose, it is most definately not Kirby's artwork.

Could it be that Jack's revisions were done on additional pages that were adhered (poorly) to the original. Comic book art in the 1960s was still considered nearly useless after a comic's initial printing. It's easy to imagine an overlay being only taped down and the entire piece thrown in a drawer before realizing it's value. Carelessness and an ignorance of storage techniques could easily explain why reproductions of the comic omit the two figures seen on the original.

Jack Kirby left the Fantastic Four with issue 102, but many artists have paid tribute to his great legacy since then. John Buscema used the first issue's cover layout on #126, which also reproduced much of the first issue inside the book as well. While Buscema made it quite clear that the cover was in honor of Kirby, he also made it distinctly his own by giving the heroes their costumes and removing the onlookers from harm's way. This too appeared in a vinyl format when it was reproduced (with extensive modifications throughout the book) by Power Records in 1974.

John Byrne has been a long time fan of both Jack Kirby and the Fantastic Four. Byrne is also well-known for recognizing and honoring many of the great comic book artists in many of his books. His What If story in issue #36 that depicted the FF's first meeting with the Mole Man is a direct homage to Kirby, even though the FF are shown without their cosmic ray induced powers. Byrne has also used more modified versions of that cover with several Mole Man stories including Fantastic Four #264 and Avengers West Coast #54. He even took a humorous look at his role as the Fantastic Four's writer/artist, when he created the cover to Marvel Age #14 -- which depicted Byrne himself in place of the monster. Curiously, none of these covers have included the bystanders that gave Kirby problems.

Others have followed Kirby's lead as well. One of the most elaborate includes an oil painting by Alex Ross used in conjunction with the release of Marvels. Other tributes include Simpsons Comics #1 and Champion's role-playing game supplement Invaders from Below. It seems unusual, however, that several comics that would have been likely candidates for a Kirby tribute (FF volume 2 #1, for example) have ignored looking back to him for inspiration.

Probably the closest, albiet most unusual, tribute to Kirby's layout can be seen on the cover Married with Children: Quantum Quartet #1. Although the cover design has little, if any, similarity to the story within (the villain is actually Male Nurse Doom), it does an excellent job of poking fun at Kirby's dramatic flair by duplicating it so nearly. One of the most notable examples is Kelly Bundy (The Thingie) saying, "It's time for me to take a hand -- just as soon as I finish destroying this innocent person's car!"

By no means are these tributes to Kirby limited to that one initial cover. Several of his Fantastic Four covers have seen remakes as have several dozens of his interior panel layouts he created for the title. Not to mention Kirby's work in other books. The first appearance of Spider-Man in Amazing Fantasy #15 is possibly the most duplicated cover since Action Comics #1.

I look forward to the day when every cover he did has been redone. Kirby's dynamic and creative layouts still continue to be powerful images that other artists use to honor "The King." His memory will continue in these tributes for years to come.
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