23 September 2009

Your Graphic Imagination: Jack Kirby's Iron Mickey Speaks

In something of a segue between our last installment of your graphic imagination and tonight's, I thought I'd share two portraits of our pal Mickey Mouse I came across this afternoon while out sizing-up the competition. Mind you, these aren't just anybody's drawings, either. Their creator was none other than Jack Kirby himself, who completed both illustrations just a few short years before he died in 1994.
In comic books, storytelling is a joint effort. Words and pictures come together to convey the action; and more often than not, what's illustrated is far more important, and more full of story, than the words could even be. Keeping this "comics basic" in mind, a single image by Jack Kirby, by the man whose artistic style and approach became comics gold standard, would be an image that has something to say. Something with a capital 'S'.
So when I came across Kirby's two single-page drawings of Mickey Mouse posted over at KirbyMuseum.org, I was immediately intrigued. Initially, I saw them like I imagine most folks would see them -- just for what they are at face value. They're talented, creatively rendered images of Disney's main mouse, but done with a super hero flair that I associate with my classic Marvel comics. I recognize Kirby's individual hand in them, and I see his artistic signature written across their page. I'm not too keen on Mickey, but I smiled, duly impressed.
I figured I'd admired the pictures enough, so I started reading about them instead. I'll summarize:
According to KirbyMuseum.org, Jack Kirby was asked to produce a piece of a coffee table book, The Art of Mickey Mouse. The book, published in 1991, would include many well-known artists from around the globe, becoming a veritable showcase of each artist's unique interpretation of Walt Disney's famous Willie.
I took another look at Kirby's two pictures. In essence, every submission would be telling its own Mickey Mouse story, from the unique point-of-view of its creator. For artists like Jack Kirby, a drawing of, say, Spider-Man wouldn't merely be Spider-Man's likeness; that drawing would be telling a story in which Spider-Man was the star.
Though he only had to complete one submission for The Art of Mickey Mouse, Kirby, with inking assistance from Mike Thibodeaux, actually rendered two pieces for the Disney collection. The works he'd finished were the black-and white early-Disney-esque illustration, The Sorcerer's Apprentice, and the Marvel-inspired full-color Mickey Mouse. Of the two, Mickey Mouse was selected as Jack Kirby's contribution to the final publication.
I've seen enough Jack Kirby to be able to recognize a work as his, no matter the genre. Still, superhero fanboy that I am, I've also grown used to Kirby's heroic renderings: a square-jawed, larger than life Reed Richards stretching way past his comic book panels with all the speed of a snapped rubber band, for instance. Which made associating Kirby with anything Mickey Mouse was, well, a bit of a stretch.
Then again, maybe my mental discord was leading me somewhere. I studied the two pictures again. Both images of the Mouse really did represent so much of the style that was Kirby's Cool. But I had a hard time relating to the black-and-white The Sorcerer's Apprentice; I didn't find anything familiar there aside from Kirby's style. Maybe too quickly, I cast my vote with the editors and turned my gaze to Kirby's colored Mickey.
Definitely the hands-down winner in this unofficial contest. I'm sure it was Kirby's favorite, too. The colored Mickey Mouse tells a story.
Take another look:
I've subtitled the piece "Composite Mickey." In this drawing, Kirby's Mickey is not the magical mouse he is in the first drawing, or as Mickey is generally seen as being. In contrast, the talking, smiling mouse - still black-and-white --has become mechanical. A colored (modern?) robotic composite -- even a monster. The picture certainly smacks with a bit of Frankenstein's Monster as well as a hint of science fiction.
The "Composite", though, is an amalgamation of super hero parts. I've not read any discourse on this picture at all, but to me, at least, there are representative bits of many of Jack Kirby's most iconic co-creations, his own "monsters," in a sense. I've spotted so far: Thor, Iron Man, and Galactus The Destroyer of Worlds. And I get vibes of the Fantastic Four when I see it, too. Mickey's movement, breaking and punching through that thick metal wall of his, reminds me of Ben Grimm's Thing (a monster) and "Clobberin' Time".
Even with just those initial impressions, I'm left with a sense that with Mickey Mouse, Jack Kirby wasn't trying to endear his audience to Walt Disney and Company. He didn't draw a "warm fuzzy" for the coffee table book whatsoever.
Those same impressions have me asking two main questions: What was Jack Kirby really saying about Mickey Mouse? If the story Kirby was telling is the same story I found within his drawing, then I've also got to wonder what made Kirby tell the story that he did?
I'm intrigued, big time. And in a weird way, the Mickey image seems eerily relevant , even prophetic. Mickey Mouse is poised to become a composite of over 5,000 superheroes should the Disney-Marvel deal be finalized once and for all. And, of course, the similarities between art and life don't quit there.
By the by, I also noticed that Friday, August 28th, would have been Jack Kirby's 92nd birthday. Just three days before all that Disney / Marvel news broke. Makes me think "Composite Mickey" is Jack, back from the grave.
Kirby's longtime friend, co-creator, and former Editor-in-Chief / Chairman Emeritus of Marvel Comics, Stan Lee, spoke very favorably of Marvel's joining the Disney family. Of course, Stan's been working with Disney on the side for several years now, and any merger would be very kind to his productions, and his pocketbook.
Still, I like to think that if Jack Kirby were alive today, he and Stan may share similar opinions. Then again, sometimes a writer can be 360-degrees different from the artist with whom he so often works. So yeah, I'd be very interested to hear Jack's thoughts about Marvel moving-in to the House of Mouse.
If only he were able to share them with us. And Stan Lee.
NOTE: Many abbracadabbler's may not be too familiar with Jack Kirby; I know I had a few things to learn about the man and the legend myself. To help us out all out, here's a Jack Kirby Mini-Bio for your graphic imagination:
If your magnifying glass would be handier here than your graphic imagination, don't squint: Mark Evanier writes a very good Kirby biography to peruse, as does Illustrative Biographies.
Until next time --- keep your imagination in check!

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