On Strips: Kirby's Sky Masters in Color Redux

By | Friday, September 01, 2017 Leave a Comment
I wrote about some color guides that Jack Kirby used for Sky Masters of the Space Force back in 2012. It's some great info and worth visiting again during this week of celebrating what would have been Jack's 100th birthday. I've tweaked the following slightly from my original post.

Sky Masters has got to be the most under-appreciated work in Jack Kirby's career. It's got absolutely brilliant illustration and storytelling, particularly for a newspaper strip; the Wally Wood inks from the earlier part of the run are gorgeous; it's also probably one of Kirby's most-ground-in-actual-science works, but still has a grand sense of adventure and exploration. It's a real shame that legal difficulties kept the strip from running longer.

Greg Theakston has probably done the most work keeping any interest in the strip alive and well, having retouched and republished the series multiple times. I think he came out with a two-volume version in 2011. But he also posted some scans on Facebook that I'd like to examine here.

First, here's a black and white copy of the strip that originally ran on May 31, 1959, taken from the British Express Weekly...
It looks fantastic, I think (even though the Theakston-printed versions are MUCH cleaner) but it's not how it originally ran. It was originally a Sunday strip and thus in color. But, color printing being a little pricier and the daily strips being in black and white anyway, this is how it's generally been seen/reprinted.

So here's Kirby's (slightly cropped on the scanner) color guide to the same strip...
Kirby was, of course, dealing with 1950s newspaper printing technology, so he's mostly using a bright color palette. Lots of yellows and reds; the blues are more on the cyan side. The newspaper folks took Kirby's color guide and made their color plates based on that. Here's what the engravers sent back as a color proof...
You can see they've basically stayed true to Kirby's original, but cleaned up some of the bleeding edges and unified the slight variations from Kirby's watercolors into solid blocks. The only really significant change is in the caption box of the first panel in the third tier; I have no idea why they opted for muted purple-ish color instead of the orange that Kirby specified.

Finally, here's a scan of what was ultimately printed...
You can easily see how muted the overall palette looks on the newsprint, instead of the pristine white board. That's one of the reason why such garish colors were chosen -- subtlety simply did not translate onto newsprint. You can particularly see it in that Earth in the second panel; it loses nuance with each step so that it's just a blue squiggle by the time most readers would have seen it.

It's also noteworthy that there are some differences in the panel arrangements. Kirby designed the strip so what was originally the bottom tier could be discarded if an individual paper wanted to use that space for something else. Another strip or an advertisement, perhaps. So the Sunday Sky Masters was essentially two separate strips. In addition, Kirby has an extra beat panel (seen as the first panel of the third tier in the final published version I have here) that could be added or dropped depending on the specific format the newspaper wanted to run for the piece. You'll note that the printed version here still retains three tiers, despite dropping the "Scrap Book" section -- they've completely reconfigured the strip layout to fit a slightly narrower format. But doing so opened up a little extra space, hence Kirby added the extra beat panel, which is unnecessary for the overall story, but helps with the new layout.

That's one of the things that really impresses the hell out of me with Sky Masters. Kirby has this strip set up so brilliantly that a newspaper could run it in several different ways to fit its preferred format, without losing anything in the overall story. Not to mention (though you can't really see it here in one strip) that he's able to move the action along from day to day with recaps that sound so little like recaps that you won't get bored reading them all in a collected edition back to back like a graphic novel.
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