Hot Streak: Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four

« Silence at the proper season is wisdom, and better than any speech. » — Plutarch

When I think of cover layouts, I always recall the sage advice of my art school book design teacher, who posited that « a poster should be One Angry Fist », as you only have a second or two to make your point to the undecided consumer. That knuckle sandwich is what gets your message across, not a bunch of clichés and slogans; these only detract from the power of your image.

While we’re obviously dealing, in comics, with a commercial medium, it’s hard to not view it as creative interference, a lack of confidence**. While all publishers indulged in cover overhyping to some degree, Marvel and DC were the main offenders, and DC at least had superior title and logo designers***. 

In the 60s, Jack Kirby created a massive amount of stunning cover art for Marvel… which editor Stan “Ne’er ’nuff Said” Lee buried, as often as not, under his trademark wiseass hyperbole. One might argue that this hardsell approach worked, commercially speaking. Artistically, on the other hand… well, the debate lingers on.

One could counter that cover hype only increased in the subsequent decades (imitated, amplified and distorted), and that stands to reason. That trend is pretty universal, since everything is getting louder, literally and figuratively: commercials, recordings, everyday life. Indeed: louder, sweeter, saltier, faster, meatier and of course cheesier.     

Ah, but for what seems like a mere blip in its history, which is to say around ’68-’69*, Marvel somewhat dialled down the verbiage and let some prime Kirby compositions enjoy a bit of breathing room (at least on Fantastic Four, the company’s second-best seller — and number 16 overall for 1968).

This particular streak is circumscribed by two ho-hum (by lofty Kirby standards) covers: flat FF 81 and messy FF 88 (featured here)… which leaves us with plenty of goodies in the middle. Let’s take the tour, shall we?

KirbyFF82A
This is Fantastic Four no. 82 (Jan. 1969, Marvel). Inks by Joe Sinnott. Silence by Stan Lee. Now isn’t that better?
FF83a
Maximus tries to usurp Black Bolt’s throne, like clockwork. Just a discreet story title… though even then, it’s still intrusive. This is Fantastic Four no. 83 (Feb. 1969, Marvel)
FF84a
See picturesque Latveria. Enjoy the charms of its capital, Doomstadt, located just north of the Kline River. Don’t forget to drop in for some howdy-dos at the small but proud nation’s administrative centre, Castle Doom. This is Fantastic Four no. 84 (Mar. 1969, Marvel). Beyond-meticulous inks by Mr. Sinnott.
FF85a
This is Fantastic Four no. 85 (Apr. 1969, Marvel). Again, did we even need a title? Mechanical lettering, to boot, so it’s not even expressive.
FF86a
Short of a classic, but a nice entry nonetheless. And quiet! This is Fantastic Four no. 86 (May 1969, Marvel).
FF87a
This is always the first image that springs to (my) mind when people bone-headedly claim that Kirby’s work is too over-the-top, ham-fisted and frantic. Even the colours (Stan Goldberg, is that really you?) are admirably subdued. Of course, Stan had to panic and turn on the hype in the eleventh hour. The title would have sufficed. This is Fantastic Four no. 87 (June 1969, Marvel). Giacoia-esque inks by Mr. Sinnott.
FF87b
There. Isn’t that better? The might of Photoshop harnessed to noble ends.

In the face of all this, is it any wonder I found so refreshing the design quietude and purity of some recent comic books covers, such as the Chris Samnee creations we recently spotlighted? There’s hope, thanks to some enlightened folks out there.

-RG

*which closely dovetails with Martin Goodman‘s sale, in the fall of 1968, of Marvel/Magazine Management to the Perfect Film & Chemical Corporation (later Cadence Industries). Probably a coincidence, but who can say?

**Steve Ditko, for one, grasped that if you couldn’t have your publisher’s confidence and trust in your craft and visual salesmanship, you could go elsewhere and enjoy a publisher’s laisser-faire.

***Marvel would even, in the 70s, hire on the sly, for freelance jobs, DC’s reigning lettering ace, Gaspar Saladino. Heaven knows The Avengers badly needed a logo makeover.

4 thoughts on “Hot Streak: Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four

  1. Matt Brunson November 23, 2019 / 12:50

    I quite enjoyed FF back in the day; loved the multi-issue Galactus saga in the mid-70s. But it’s now become simultaneously amusing and tragic that Hollywood simply cannot make a good FF movie.

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    • gasp65 November 23, 2019 / 20:07

      Hi Matt! — Do you mean the one from issues 120-123? I must say I can’t be neutral about that storyline, here’s why: as a kid, I followed the FF in French from Éditions Héritage. For some ungodly reason, their issue 11 reprinted FF 97-98, and all was right with the world… gorgeous, thrilling issues. And then… with issue 12, we suddenly found ourselves fast-forwarded to FF 121… and the *second* part of a storyline, with different creators (even if Stan Lee is credited with writing something, I can’t take it seriously, given the specifics of the Marvel Method… Big John essentially wrote it, and he’s no writer). Things looked vaguely familiar, due to the homogenizing influence of Joe Sinnott, but Lee and Buscema, even to my seven-year-old’s palate, were no substitute for Kirby. Looking now over the covers, I must given up on the title another five or six issues down the line. So I’ve never even read the whole Galactus storyline in question. I *do* vividly recall Gabriel’s fall, though, so that’s something. Odd of Galactus to be so Judeo-Christian in his choice of heralds, I must say.

      As for the movies, it’s the same flaw at play, I presume: poverty of imagination. Maybe it’s the familial vibe they can’t wrap their heads around. To be fair, I’ve avoided the movies like the plague. Jessica Alba as Sue Storm? No thanks.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Matt Brunson November 24, 2019 / 15:49

        Howdy. I haven’t read those issues. The one I mean is #171-#175, which came out in 1976. The High Evolutionary, The Impossible Man, and Gorr were the other major players.

        And, yeah, I think that FF twofer with Alba et al was even worse than the later one with Miles Teller, etc., although that one’s pretty bad as well.

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      • gasp65 November 26, 2019 / 21:57

        Hi Matt– I haven’t read those, but I did somehow wind up with FF 176, starring The Impossible Man. It’s always seemed to me that characters such as Galactus or Eternity (from Dr. Strange) should have only been used once, and that their every return diminished their stature and efficacy. Left to their own devices, I’m sure Kirby and Ditko would have just moved on, forever generating new characters and situations, always looking ahead. Guess I’m both a purist and an idealist. 😉

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