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.