On History: Out Next Week!

By | Friday, June 20, 2014 Leave a Comment
I believe next week will see the release of The Jack Kirby Collector #63. As with every issue for the past ten years, I'll have a column in there looking at how Jack inadvertently came to define certain iconic aspects of his various characters. In #63, I take a look at Triton the Inhuman. You can preview the issue, or buy a copy, from the TwoMorrows site.

So how do I go about researching one of my Incidental Iconography columns?

First, I need a subject. I try to choose characters based on the theme of any given issue. In this latest issue, the theme was just Jack's Marvel work, so the available characters is pretty broad. I narrowed it down to Triton this time, largely thanks to an off-hand comment from my friend, J.A.Fludd. He made reference to a John Byrne drawing of Triton that depicted a dorsal fin up the character's back, which he noted had not been drawn since Jack had been on the book. (Thanks for the tip, Joe!) Plus, I recalled the initial issue or two, Jack had kept Triton covered up in a giant water-bag suit and there was something of a reveal when the suit ripped.

So a character with a clear change in design in mind, I went to ComicBookDB and pulled down a list of all Triton's appearances in chronological order. Then, I manually narrowed that down to the ones Jack drew. Fairly easy to do with the chronological list since the vast majority of Triton's appearances occur when Jack wasn't working for Marvel anyway.

As it happens, I had nearly all of the issues, so I pulled those out. Most of the ones I didn't have original copies of, I did have reprints for. (As a long-time Jack Kirby fan, I've got a good chunk of his work in my collection already. It's usually pretty easy to pull out most of what he did after the late 1950s.) Then it was a matter of reading through those issues in chronological order, noting changes in the character design as it progressed from one panel to the next.

(Jack's memory was notoriously bad, and he could be horribly inconsistent at times. He very much could/would change costume details literally from panel to panel! This did get mostly cleaned up by the mid-1960s, but that was largely thanks to Joe Sinnott correcting mistakes like that when he was inking.)

After noting the changes, the tricky part comes in figuring how/why those changes were made. In many cases -- and this is the over-arching theme of my column -- it boils down to Jack seeing certain elements of a character's design as key to the overall look. He remembered those, and all the other fidly details were secondary elements that simply weren't much of a concern. As long as the reader got the gist of the character, what did it matter if there was a horizontal zig-zag pattern or a series of lightning bolts on his belt? Now, granted, this last portion does rely on a fair amount of speculation on my part, but I like to think that the number of art background in college helps to make my thinking a bit more informed than some people's.

I also usually take a look at some of Jack's other work from the same period. Are there ideas or designs that get carried over from one character to another? What else was going on in Jack's life at that time outside of comics that may have been an influence? I check interviews to see if he said anything about the characters that might point to some insights on where his inspirations came from. I can't always find anything outside the comics themselves, but I've come across some interesting external pieces from time to time in my research, particularly when it comes to more historical characters like Thor or Prester John.

From there, it's then just a matter of writing up what I've found in a way that flows relatively smoothly and relays when/how/what changes Jack may have made.

Are there better/more comprehensive/more substantive ways to work on this column? Probably. But it's what seems to make sense to me, and my editor has let me keep doing this for over a decade(, so I can't be doing too badly.
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