Sunday, May 29, 2011

Kirby Costume Design

Two things I've been devouring lately: the 50th issue of The Jack Kirby Collector (aka Kirby Five-Oh!) and various Kirby comics from the 50s, 60s and 70s. The giant Kirby Collector issue, published in 2008, is made up of a number of themed articles incorporating the number 50, including a list of top 50 character designs by Sean Kleefeld. You should really seek out the issue to read Kleefeld's arguments but the list really got me thinking about Kirby's approach to costume and character and I started looking more critically at some of his superhero and monster comics with a focus on costume.

Ten Classic Kirby Costumes

1. Ant-Man: A pure superhero costume. The design incorporates totemically aspects of the character's namesake powers in a very bold and stylized manner. The helmet is functional in that it serves as a both mask and source of his power (ability to communicate with and control ants). At the same time it looks like an ant head! The rest of the costume follows the conceit of the helmet. The ant symbol on the costume is stylized almost to the point of abstraction.*

2. White Zero: This is Kirby doing a generic superhero costume and gives us an idea of how he might approach the idea of the superhero as an outsider, almost as parody, but using a more intellectual attack than in Fighting American or Brand Echh. A Kirby cosmic design that is also more of a traditional superhero than almost anything he created after 1970.

3. X-men: Iconic, versatile team uniform design, great colour scheme and logical. The idea of a school uniform grafted onto the superhero.

4. OMAC: Very unique costume that spotlights a Kirby design feature that few other older artists outside of the classic strip creators paid attention to: hair. I could write a whole separate list of best superhero hair, but suffice to say that OMAC's mohawk elegantly marks him as both futuristic and a warrior, perfect visual shorthand. The rest of the costume, including the all-important, all-seeing central eye, is nothing to sneeze at either.

5. Capt. America: One of the first iconic Kirby designs. I've read that Joe Simon did the initial sketch but Kirby certainly refined Cap to an elegant purity over the years.

6. Impossible Man: Besides being a great fun character with a classic colourful look, Impy is representative of that whole trademark Kirby skinny alien approach to character design.

7. Ikaris: A personal nostalgic favourite and representaive of the elaborate goofy god designs.

8. Klaw: A great villain design and one of the first, along with Quicksilver, zig-zag costume designs.

9. Thing: Simple, but visually interesting. Instantly recognizable, even though never drawn the same way twice. The Thing makes the character's skin the costume.

10. The Demon: see below.

I like the generic 70s heroes (White Zero, Manhunter, Sandman) and the monsters-in-trunks (Thing, Demon, Karkas) for their simplicity and streamlining. But I have to admit that what makes Kirby interesting is the more trademark weirdness. The busy-ness and extraneous zig-zag zaniness. In terms of the heroes, maybe Thor was the first of that lot? Certainly the various gods, both New and Norse, exemplified that approach the most. There are interviews in Kirby Five-Oh with Kirby pastiche artists like Joe Casey collaborator Tom Scioli and John Romita Jr (he illo'd the Neil Gaiman Eternals heresy) and lots of talk about the modern approach to making the Kirby gods uniforms look more logical or more like skins since we can't imagine immortal beings with control over atoms pulling on their pants, even though the "uniforms" should really be seen as ceremonial or religious garb, not a uniform per se. The great thing about the costumes, however, is that Kirby DID imagine these gods pulling on their pants. We can imagine him saying to himself, to the extent he ever verbalized his creative process, "This is a super-god, so therefore he needs a super-god costume, like a superhero's but more awesome. Naturally, this includes a pair of trunks on top of leotards. But these are cosmic trunks and extra-dimensional leotards." Sometimes he shows someone like T'Challa ceremoniously putting on the Panther suit, or suddenly transforming (Ben Bolt, Sersi), but mostly the latter-day cosmic Kirby heroes have very little in the way of civilian garb and wear their costumes like everyday clothing. Of course, the weirdness of the clothing lends a certain majesty or alien-ness to the characters. I like to imagine Ikaris or Orion pulling on their wrestler-style shorts or stiff loincloth one leg at a time, just like any other super-schlub. In Kirby's proletarian approach, this seems perfectly natural.

Some of Kirby's costumes seem designed around a functionality or specific use or feature, but still combine with a ritual/cultural look. I'm thinking of Black Bolt's wings and antennae, Metron's circuit diagrams, and Orion's helmet and astro-harness (without which he looks naked). The classic example is Captain America, a mix of propaganda and army uniform, gaudy and utilitarian.

One of my favourite examples from the pile of Kirby comics I've recently read is "Witchboy!" from The Demon #7 (March 1973): Kirby teams up his two 1970s DC magic characters in a story where The Demon rescues Klarion from the pursuing puritan-garbed elders of The Beyond Country. Quite wonderful pacing, great characterization. The Demon lives in Gotham City and as Jason Blood he goes to parties with his friends. He has a sexy blonde girlfriend named Glenda Mark. She has a wide forehead with dark eyebrows. Every single panel here is sheer delight, each with some novel graphic detail, variation in perspective and camera angle, and lots of action. Sometimes Kirby drops the backgrounds but his larger panels and spreads have unique, economic-yet-decorative scene-setting detail. The Demon's costume is interesting. Supposedly medieval, it is made up of a red jersey with matching cuffs/bracelets with matching black-and-white circular pattern, red belt and shorts, with little red booties and a baby blue cloak/cape fastened with a circular yellow clasp, all of which contrasts nicely with his yellow skin and red eyes. The Demon often drapes the cloak over himself and can use it as a magical prop, as when he covers up Klarion and makes him vanish at the end of the story. Jason Blood, The Demon's alter ego, is distinctive as well. Cut in the heroic leading man mold, his craggy good looks and broad shoulders are accented with slightly-pointed ears and curly eyebrows, topped off by slicked-back red hair with a distinctive widow's peak and broad white streak. The red hair is a nice piece of continuity with his surname and The Demon's costume.

Klarion's outift is less interesting but still graphically bold: a simple blue/black puritan-style suit. He gets his graphic impact from the contrast between the skinny, purple/black-clad child's body and large head with big eyes and expressive features, including two horn-like curls on the top of his black hair. For further contrast, Klarion carries around the orange cat Teekl, his tiger-like familiar. Both Etrigan and Klarion are mischeivous and laugh alot. Both are fun variations on the standard superhero type with ancestry in earlier Kirby concepts. The Demon is one of Kirby's monster heroes (The Thing, Hulk, Karkas), but with a more sophisticated power set (spells, flame-throwing), and Klarion, as a sort of delinquent child/adolescent, has much in common with Kirby's kid gangs (Newsboy Legion, Boy Commandos). They make a good team, an oddball witchy couple with Klarion the troublesome nephew and Jason Blood/Etrigan the good-natured, wise and protective uncle.

For reference: Kleefeld's Top Ten.

1. Silver Surfer
2. Black Panther
3. Warlord Kaa the Living Shadow (st79)
4. Marvel Girl/X-Men
5. Black Bolt
6. Demon
7. Skrulls
8. Odin
9. Kang
10. Kirby's Children

The list has tons of famous and obscure characters as well, like Mark Moonrider (#16), and The Goozlebopper (#49). But no MODOK (monster-meets-Metron?).

*I have to admit that many conversations with the cartoonist Seth on the subject of the excellence of Ant-Man may have influenced this ranking.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Mad Dogs and Canadians

I was slightly drunk when I concocted this but at the urging of Brad Mackay I am posting it.

Isn't it funny how many of us had our first exposure to classic Tin Pan Alley songs and showtunes through Mad Magazine? Inspired by the Wright Awards and the presence there of the Tony-winning Drowsy Chaperone composers Don McKellar and Greg Morrison (pictured above), I present this travesty:

Made in Canada Comic Book Publications
(sung to the tune of "Mad Dogs and Englishmen Go Out in the Noonday Sun")

In northern climes
There are certain kinds
of gay
and bohemian engravers
who rebel against your New York-based
comic book enslavers.
They are some of the fools
Who work their tools
All day
Because the need to publish comics
Must ignore the economics
and pay.

The natives blink
When the cartoonists
sling their ink
Because they're obviously,

Made in Can-a-da
Comic Book

The Japanese have manga,
and Tezuka is lingua franca.
Belgians and Americans
Have Herge and Obama
But Canadians
Just love their

In the Philippines
They have Nino and Alcala
To provide Marvel books with ink.
The United States
Has work-for-hire rates
and the legacy of Kitchen Sink.
In Montreal
With love for all
We have Drawn and Quarterly.
With Doucets and Chester Bruns.

Made in Can-a-da
Comic Book PublicationS!

Such a surprise
For the eastern eyes
To see,
That though the cartoonist are effete,
They won't admit to defeat.
When Andy Brown arrives,
Every Maritimer hides
In glee.
Because the simple creatures hope for
a Conundrum CORNICOPIA
of arteests.

It seems such a shame
When Canadians claim
The Earth,
That they give rise
To such hilarity
And mirth.
Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha,
Hoo, hoo, hoo, hoo, hoo, hoo, hoo, hoo,
He, he, he, he, he, he, he, he,
Hm, hm, hm, hm, hm, hm.

Made in Can-a-da
Comic Book Publications!

The toughest DC bandit
Can never understand it.
In Italy
the practioners of BD
Are just what the natives shun,
They put their pens
Or brush down
And rush down.
To the place
where comics are made on ice.
In the age of La Pasteque
The comics that we peck
are decidedly magnifique
and put to shame the scribblings
of Groth's Fantagraphic middlings.
In New York
to stroke Disney's cock
Marvel foams at the mouth and comes.

Made in Can-a-da
Comic Book Publications!


Monday, May 09, 2011

2011 Wright Award Winners

Girard, DeForge, Fellows earn top nods at 2011 Doug Wright Awards

Toronto, May 8, 2011 — The star power was sky-high at Toronto’s Jackman Hall last night as Canada’s finest comics and graphic novels were honoured at the 7th annual Doug Wright Awards.

Hosted by Tony Award-winning writer, actor and filmmaker Don McKellar, the event drew a capacity crowd of the cartooning world's luminaries and fans, including the Gemini Award-winning star of Being Erica, Erin Karpluk.

This year’s top honours included:

Bigfoot by Pascal Girard (BEST BOOK)

Alex Fellows for Spain and Morocco (BEST EMERGING TALENT)

Spotting Deer by Michael DeForge (PIGSKIN PETERS AWARD for experimental and abstract comics)

Held in conjunction with the 2011 Toronto Comic Arts Festival (TCAF), the ceremony also saw legendary Vancouver cartoonist David Boswell inducted into The Giants of the North, the Canadian Cartoonists Hall of Fame.

The creator of the influential alternative comic Reid Fleming: World’s Toughest Milkman, Boswell's work made him a favourite of underground and alternative comics fans in the 1980s and he subsequently was a major influence on a generation of alt-comix cartoonists.

The 2011 Wright Awards were decided by a jury comprised of musician Sara Quin (of Tegan and Sara), Michael Redhill (poet, author of Consolation, Martin Sloane, and publisher of the literary journal Brick), artist and award-winning illustrator Anita Kunz, Marc Bell (artist, cartoonist of Hot Potatoe and winner of the 2010 Pigskin Peters Award) and National Post books editor Mark Medley.

Speaking about Alex Fellow's work the jury said:

“Fellows' illustrations not only perfectly capture the languid Spanish afternoons, sun-soaked beaches, and cramped hostels, which any backpacker will recognize, but the fleeting nature of a one-night stand, and the rude awakening of a hangover. Spain and Morocco is a story about love, friendship, and, most of all, life. With an artist's eye and a poet's tongue Fellows chronicles the strange journey of two lost men without ever losing the reader's attention. He is unquestionably deserving of this year's Doug Wright Award for Best Emerging Talent.”

Speaking about Pascal Girard's work the jury said:

“Pascal Girard's Bigfoot is a generous and funny coming-of-age story about growing up in a small Quebec town with a big heart. Jimmy is in love, his best friend has humiliated him via YouTube, and the adults in his life are around the bend. Add to this a rumour of Bigfoot at large in the Saguenay woods, and what you get is a wonderfully warm and comic portrait of life as it is lived. Expressively and crisply drawn figures fill the pages of BIGFOOT, and Girard's bright colours--something he has become justly celebrated for---give it all a gorgeous depth. Wry, rueful, and profoundly honest, Bigfoot is a triumph of cartooning and is surely deserves to win the 2011 Doug Wright Award for Best Book.”

Speaking about Michael DeForge's work the Wright Awards nominating committee, which chooses the annual Pigskin Peters Award, said:

“Like a lost episode of the Audubon Wildlife Theatre broadcast from the Twilight Zone, Michael DeForge’s Spotting Deer is an otherworldly travelogue on the habits, habitat and culture of a species of large Canadian slugs which physically resemble deer. Typical of Deforge's distinctive and rapidly growing body of work, Spotting Deer deftly combines the beautiful with the repellent into a truly original comic.”

The Best Book and Best Emerging Talent winners received a glass-and-wood trophy made by Guelph, Ontario cartoonist Seth. The Pigskin Peters Award winner receives a unique “wearable” trophy that is comprised of a customized bowler hat and plaque that also serves as a hat hook (also designed by Seth).

In addition, each of the winners received a trophy and a special hard-bound copy of their winning book.

About The Doug Wright Awards
The Doug Wright Awards are a non-profit organization formed in 2004 to honour the lasting legacy of the late, great Canadian cartoonist Doug Wright (1917 – 1983), whose strip Doug Wright's Family ran in newspapers in Canada and around the world from the late 1940s to the early 1980s. Founded in 2004, the annual awards recognize the best and brightest in English-language comics and graphic novels published in the previous calendar year (including first translated editions).