By Carter Glace, Staff Writer
February 6 marks the anniversary of comic artist Jack Kirby’s death. The Marvel Comics creator left a legacy that will probably remain unchallenged as long as comic books are printed, having helped define the designs of Captain America, Fantastic Four, Hulk, X-Men, Black Panther, and several other Marvel and DC characters. Some of the most iconic images and figures of the comic world would not exist if Kirby never picked up his pen, to say nothing of how different the landscape would be had he not pioneered the visual language of superhero comics.
And yet, despite his monumental achievement, he has frequently gotten the short end of the stick. When you think of these various characters, you largely think of Stan Lee’s writing, while Kirby’s contributions to the creation of these characters and their various plots are left somewhat forgotten (This is a part of the “Marvel Method” pioneered by Stan Lee, where artists are actually in charge of the plot summaries in order to give the over extended Lee more flexibility to write dialogue and edit every major Marvel publication). The relationship between the Kirby and Marvel Comics became so contentious, Kirby left Marvel Comics for years, and ultimately culminated in several lengthy court proceedings centered around him seeking both compensation and ownership of his work that continued as recently as 2014.
This, unfortunately, is not an uncommon story. While companies are glad to make billions at this point from various comic books characters, the artists who visualize and realize them get used and tossed aside (this happens to writers as well, but artists tend to get hit harder. If you want an example of a writer being shafted by a company, I’d recommend research on the treatment of Neil Gaiman from Todd McFarlane and Image comics). Without these men and woman, the entire medium would simply not exist, and yet the medium continues to ignore their individual importance and significance.
So, to honor the legacy of Jack Kirby, I wanted to take some time and talk about a few of my favorite comics artists, figures who have made the industry infinitely better by their presence.
Bryan Lee O’Malley (“Scott Pilgrim,” “Lost at Sea,” “Seconds”):
Much like the film based off his seminal Scott Pilgrim series, O’Malley’s art doesn’t waste a single frame or panel. Every inch of every page is filled with visual gags, puns, references, and a brilliant sense of motion. But what makes him even more impressive is how his signature style is transposed across three very different genres. “Lost At Seas” mellow road trip, “Seconds” fantasy/horror/work place drama and Scott Pilgrim’s Video Game Romance all comfortably exist in the same artistic world, a true testament of a signature style.
Babs Tarr (“BatGirl”):
A freelance artist, Babs skyrocketed into mainstream comics with her work on the latest run of Batgirl. Her vibrant, pop-punk style breathed new life into a character that had been falling from the spotlight for far too long. There really isn’t a modern Batgirl without her. And more importantly, her vision of Barbra Gordon as an upbeat youth akin to early Spider-Man comics has help inject much needed brevity into the genre.
Alex Ross (“Kingdom Come,” “Marvels”):
Alex Ross is that rare artist who can capture the iconography and legacy of DC’s characters. Every single one of his panels is a painting; an operatic, dramatic look at various legends DC has created. DC routinely refers to characters as “God’s Among Men,” and almost no artist better captures that mood than Ross. There’s a reason why the DC films thus far have seemingly tried—and failed—to capture his style, because he can create emotion, chills and awe through nothing but art.
Renae De Liz (“The Legend of Wonder Woman”):
One of the co-artist on “The Legend of Wonder Woman”—which was criminally canceled under confusing circumstances—Liz is my favorite modern Wonder Woman artist. She manages to find a brilliant middle ground between the mythic world of Greek myth and the idealized perception around 1940’s America, creating a ground but extraordinary vision of Diana’s world. Finding a strong balance between the character’s original iconography that has been lost in later versions and adding new wrinkles, it is a tragedy we won’t get to see more of her Wonder Woman.
Darwyn Cook (“The New Frontier”):
Tragically passing away last year, Darwyn Cook leaves behind a vibrant legacy. If Alex Ross captures the spirit and scope of DC in a modern vision, Cook captured the same spirit in a beautifully old school way. His poppy, vibrant, retro-futurist vibe captured these iconic characters at their most optimistic and warmest. I feel like he is the one artist who captures how truly exciting the Golden and Silver Age of comics were, when the future held exciting and unpredictable possibilities for our heroes and ourselves. He will be dearly missed.
Honorable Mention: Yale Stewart (JL8)
I won’t say much, namely because his excellent “JL8” series deserves to be read completely cold. But Yale’s work is fun, clever, an filled to the brim with Easter Eggs and references.