Ersatz Kirby

By | Sunday, October 30, 2011 1 comment
Jack Kirby influenced a lot of people. Partially by being just so damned prolific, but he was also just a darn good storyteller. In comic books, it's not at all difficult to find artists who've been influenced by the man, and there are plenty of homages to him. But some artists take things a step further.

Tom Scioli is perhaps the most famous (currently) comic artist working in a very obvious Kirby style. He's been criticized for it, but what I think is interesting about Scioli's work isn't so much that it looks like Kirby's illustration style, but that it also has that late 1970s, throwing-every-weird-idea-at-the-wall vibe to it. Scioli doesn't just draw squared off fingers and "Kirby Krackle", but he's putting some unusual ideas out there. Check out his webcomic American Barbarian if you don't know what I'm talking about.

I've also recently come across the work of Sterling Clark, who writes and draws Ntombinde as weekly syndicated adventure strip after producing a graphic novel about her. As with Scioli, Clark's illustration style bears a lot of the classic Kirby hallmarks. What strikes me as especially interesting is how Clark channels Kirby differently than Scioli. Clark's art looks more like Kirby's mid-1960s work. Where Scioli looks a bit like Kirby's pre-Machine Man 2001, Clark looks more like Kirby's Black Panther stories in Fantastic Four. Similarly, Clark takes more cues from Kirby's technical storytelling skills than his broad concepts. In fact, I was struck with how Clark seemed to have consciously studied Kirby's page and panel layouts, something I've only seen done once or twice before. And even then, it was for a decidedly limited duration. Clark's entire Ntombinde graphic novel, and the snippets of other stories about her I've seen, reads and feels like a culturally aware Kirby book with more natural-sounding dialogue. ("Culturally aware" in the sense that the protagonist is a Congolese woman.)

Now, favorably comparing these guys to Kirby is obviously intended as a compliment from me. But in the same way that Kirby didn't always produce gems, the same holds true for Scioli and Clark. Some of Scioli's concepts are a little "out there" and don't always make a lot of sense, and sometimes Clark takes some abrupt story turns that hearkens back to Kirby's tendency to not plan his work much further out than the page he was working on. But here again, they're pulling very different things out of the same man's oeuvre.

I think that's one of the fascinating things about studying art of any sort: tracing back creators' influences and trying to figure out how they arrived at a finished product. What's more, tracing back creators to find a common source and seeing what they took from that source. Because whatever strikes one person about an artist, good or bad, it's inevitably different from what the next person sees.
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Matt K said...

Clark's work is pretty neat. I met him at MidOhioCon a few years ago, and he sold me a small collection of stories plus an art book. Definitely a Kirby influence, though I think his work is so different from the American comics mainstream in a lot of ways (a couple of which you allude to) that Clark is definitely doing his own thing.

Though this, of course, is also very much in the Kirby tradition. :-)