Personal Symbolism


Sunday, April 20, 2008

This is Kirby’s last issue of Mister Miracle (no.18) and effectively the end of his Fourth World saga. Jack would, of course, complete the tale of Orion and Darkseid in a Baxter paper deluxe mini series for DC in 1984 that reprinted the original run of the New Gods series, but this was the end as it happened, amid struggling sales and a changing audience. It’s a funny issue in many ways but it’s also a gem of formal invention, and a classic example of Kirby’s almost Beat-like stream of consciousness symbolic storytelling. I thought it would be a fun example of very simple grid layouts and how the grid provides a counterpoint to the symbolism and dynamism of the drawings.

(Above)It begins with Mister Miracle, Scott Free (Kirby), in a tank of water, in a grave. When the page is turned the grave becomes a trench in war (Below). Scott Free’s allies are silenced by, what I read as, THE HANDS OF FATE. It’s as though Kirby had no script and simply filled in each panel with what frightens him most.

Mortar Fire. Approaching Armies in the distance (Below) and the appearance of an archetypal German soldier. For anyone versed in Kirby’s personal history in World War II, it is apparent that these are powerful symbols for Jack. And it’s not lost on me that he is employing these images in the last issue of this series with full knowledge that the title was being canceled.

Crisis. Romance. The killer framing of Barda slows the pace down, a violence of it’s own that’s played sweetly against the action which will surely erupt again.

Jack holds the tension of the moment at the beginning of the next page and then another Kirby power symbol, The Voice, is used like some passage in the Bible that Jack references with studied aplomb.

Capture. Notice how Kirby holds the framing of his main character (Below)and doesn’t really alter the angle all that much. But by doing so he’s able to show the weight of the figure sinking in a very “realistic” fashion. Also by using the grid to “hold” the framing sequence in place, he allows the reader to piece the stages of the action together very quickly.

Submission. Here, after Scott Free is captured, Kirby created a chapter break and shows himself submitting to the powers that be. A rare sight in a Kirby comic. The hero limp and submitting to “CANT” –okay, well, a character named “Kanto” who Mister Miracle calls the “master assassin” but you get the idea. When in 40 years was Jack ever bound by “cant”? There’s also a Dante reference here but I’ll pass on turning that rock over in favor of encouraging you, dear reader, to go over to your local comic shop or some corner of the inter-web and track down a 5 dollar copy of this comic. The conclusion is great and I don’t wanna ruin it for you.

It’s a fun comic, a wonderful example of “the blueprint” of Jack’s mind that manifests a lot in his work, especially in the 70s. I think that the grid format that he sticks with “opens up” nicely in certain spots (to a double panel or a full page). It’s also a formal structure that allows Kirby to improvise much like the Kerouac does in his spontaneous prose works. Kirby can make quick decisions and change the direction of the narrative in one panel and not upset the rhythm or flow that he has set in motion from page one. Also like many of the Beats, Kirby’s personal mythology provides the reader with clues to possible hidden or double meanings within genre stories. It’s the scrappy, personal pastiche of those genres that feels whole and unique to him and NOT just because he more or less invented these genres within comics. For a comic to utilize war, romance, adventure and occult imagery so effortlessly and simultaneously is just too much. I guess they had to cancel it.

Labels: , ,

20 Responses to “Personal Symbolism”
  1. Dash says:

    Frank, that “Capture” page is an awesome example of limiting angles in a grid. How it moves to a longer diagonal panel at the bottom? It says “sunk”, “flat” to me– the weight spreading out at the base. Very appropriate for both the movement of the character and the drama of the page.

    that page is a great find for your thoughts/writing on this.

  2. Dash says:

    er- I mean “horizontal” panel… You know what I mean…

  3. Oscar Solis says:

    A lot of comic fans seem to deplore the use of the grid as dull storytelling. Kirby knew it was the story inside the panel that mattered. Great STORYTELLERS know this. If guys like Kubert, Romita, Jr., Simonson, Chaykin, Miller, and Byrne were forced to work in the traditional six panel layout they could still blow us away with their storytelling skills.

  4. Dustin Harbin says:

    This was a great use of the Santoran eye for this stuff. I have to say the thing that I love the most about the commentary here and in the magazine is the obvious love for the material you guys bring to things. I was moving a bunch of my books last night and was looking through an old Ganzfeld where Dan waxed rhapsodic on a Seymour Chwast illo–I’ve always been more interested in criticism that finds the good in stuff rather than excoriating obviously crappy stuff all the time.

  5. Frank Santoro says:

    dash, dustin, yo, yo

    Hey, Oscar mentioned Simonson, who seems like he’s not as fondly remembered as he used to be. Is he still working?

  6. Alex Holden says:

    What do you guys think of that four panel grid that Kirby uses in some of the Fourth World books?

  7. Dustin Harbin says:

    I’m pretty sure that Simonson is still working–he does Fourth World stuff from time to time, I think, although my mainstream comics cred is about 3 years old. I think he’s just super-duper late all the time, maybe.

  8. Frank Santoro says:

    Hey Alex

    you mean the four panel grid like the ones he uses for “Tales From Asgard”? I like it for those back up stories within the Thor issues. Sticking to the four panel grid was a device, I think, to set those tales in a more “storybook” setting.

    And when Kirby employs the four panel grid within his stories, I think it works smoothly because he stays “in rhythm” with his standard 6 panel grid or full page or double page splashes. There is a symmetry to his layouts that unfold naturally.

    There are many artists who copy Kirby’s anatomy but don’t really “get” his layouts. And when they imitate him they often miss opportunities to ratchet up the tension with a simple grid. Tom Scioli, my dear pal, is guilty of that sometimes. (sorry Tom)

  9. Dustin Harbin says:

    Okay, so, why is it that the grid ratchets up the tension? I’m not disagreeing, but I’m wondering if there are some semi-scientific underpinnings to this idea. I’m pretty ignorant generally, but when I hear people discuss how different style grids affect storytelling, it always seems very anecdotal. As much discussion of comics-language ideas usually is.

    So, why? I can see why in this example, but I’m missing the connection as it would apply to other creators or stories, especially non-Kirby storytelling. And to be clear, I WANT the connection–I just haven’t heard it satisfactorily laid out before. I’m ready to learn, Frank.

  10. K. Thor Jensen says:

    Yeah Kirby’s layouts are totally underappreciated – especially when you consider he would allegedly compose pages by starting at the upper left corner and finishing at the lower right, the incredible balance and tension he gets in these is phenomenal.

  11. Frank Santoro says:

    Okay, I’m drunk and home from the bar and for whatever reason I’m gonna drop some science on all you non-believers.

    Look, if poems, songs, houses are all guided by METER, by set structures –what structures, then, guide comics? What is the unit of measure? The page?

    In most comics, even the most basic rules of static symmetry are not employed. What is static symmetry? It is the most basic form of symmetry that is like square next to square, it’s an INTUITIVE sense of balance.

    Were most comics pages put on the wall for a crit by a painting teacher, the first thing that the instructor would say is: There is no UNITY.

    If one is composing, without a grid or a “sound” structure, a series of INDEPENDENTLY ordered frames each with it’s own perspective and rules it takes great skill to arrange them in fashion that is pleasing to the eye, symmetrically. For the most part, there is a SENSE of unity but if the structure itself is not sound the structure of the page is in OPPOSITION to the drawings themselves that, again, have their own perspective, rules, tensions. It’s a house that will fall in upon itself.

    The grid appears simple but in reality it ALLOWS order to unfold naturally. Pastiche compositions with no inherent structure PREVENT the composition from unfolding.

    Okay, I’ll save the rest for my “term paper.”

  12. Dustin Harbin says:

    Okay so–and forgive me if these questions sound obvious–the block to me understanding this has always been the organizing principle of the page/panel relationship. For instance, to use your painting teacher example, the teacher would be critiquing the page as a whole, as an object. But the comics page is highly unique to comics, as it contains numerous smaller little arts within it, be they gridded or not.

    This is where ideas of page layout start to break down for me, involving as they do all the principles you’re referring to (symmetry, unity, balance, the force), PLUS the necessity to actually propel a story or idea forward, PLUS elements like balloons, thought bubbles, and captions that have to be placed carefully so everything “reads” correctly.

    As I type, I’m beginning to suspect that maybe the problem is with me and my ability to juggle all of these elements as I try to conceive a page of comics. But I’m not sure that comparing a comics page to a more traditional piece of art like a painting is the whole story.

    Although I (and again, not an unbeliever, just slow maybe) will give you that the Kirby page with Mr Miracle being crushed under the weight of the layout really proves your point. But I would say that he’s a pretty singular dude, not only in his approach and style and almost savant-like comics talent, but in what he could pull off and make work. Not to diss Kirby, but those Fourth World stories aren’t always the most sane things in the world.

  13. Frank Santoro says:

    “But I’m not sure that comparing a comics page to a more traditional piece of art like a painting is the whole story.”

    But, Dustin, you are missing the point and sort of betraying your prejudice. It’s a stance that most comics people take at this juncture which is, roughly:

    The rules of art, of architecture, of poetry, of design, of music, do not apply to comics because comics are unique somehow.

    I do not agree with this “isolationist” stance.

    Think architecture, think music, these have set structures that allow breath. Most comics pages are a sort of “post-modern” architecture that is at odds with itself, dead to the eye, with no room to breathe.

  14. Dustin Harbin says:

    I don’t think at all that comics are somehow isolated from the rules and ideas that govern other artforms. BUT I think that comics have more/different rules, in that they do things other artforms don’t necessarily do.

    The closest I can come in my brain is maybe a “concept album”, which contains some sort of central theme or idea, which is expounded upon in numerous individual songs. Those songs may or may not be successful as individual songs or as pieces of the whole. Then, within each song there are components, melodies, themes that can be successful on their own merits, and/or within the song, and/or within the album. I guess a better example would have been a symphony, for sheer structure, but you get the point.

    I DO think that the rules of art, especially any art with rhythm or meter, apply to comics. But on the other hand, the comics have to succeed or fail not just as visual art, but as whatever “other” thing they might be, whether it be story, thematic ideas, abstraction, whatever.

    If you consider comics–as a structure, a set of rules, rhythms, grids, formal ideas–to be a container for ideas or stories or images, then it makes sense to judge the container separately from what it contains, AS WELL AS together with its contents.

  15. Frank Santoro says:

    I agree that we disagree.

  16. Dustin Harbin says:

    Mm. I realized after posting that my rambling metaphor was not quite right. With the whole concept album/symphony thing, I’m specifically thinking of the capsulized nature of comics art. You have a story, which is also a collection of parts and/or pages. And within those pages, you have panels, sticking to this grid conversation.

    So each individual panel is part of numerous wholes: the page, the issue, the book, the series. You yourself, in discussing the Mister Miracle story, discuss the pages as distinct from each other, particularly in the page where Scott Free is “crushed”. But that page is part of the larger story and structure, which informs not only the content of the page itself, but the formal devices employed to frame and contain that content.

    I feel like I remember an article somewhere recently, maybe in Comics Comics #3, where the writer pointed out the ultimately doomed nature of hanging comics pages in galleries, as treating them as individual pieces of art destroyed the context they were created for. But when we discuss these kinds of formal ideas, aren’t we applying these rules panel by panel, page by page?

  17. Frank Santoro says:

    Hats off to you, Dustin. At least you’ll go toe to toe with me. Thanks, this was fun. I’ll save the rest for later.

  18. Dustin Harbin says:


    You should just expand all of these ideas into a book–can you imagine what an invaluable reference having all of this in one place would be? I’d say 80% of the cartoonists I know learned most of their skills through anecdotes, hearsay, and the letters columns of books like Cerebus. Lacking the benefit of a local cartooning program, those of us in the hinterlands CRY OUT for education!

  19. Charles Hatfield says:

    Frank, you said,

    In most comics, even the most basic rules of static symmetry are not employed. What is static symmetry? It is the most basic form of symmetry that is like square next to square, it’s an INTUITIVE sense of balance.

    Were most comics pages put on the wall for a crit by a painting teacher, the first thing that the instructor would say is: There is no UNITY.

    I dunno, it seems to me that symmetry on the comics page can often be deadening. I’ve been rereading Crisis on Infinite Earths lately, getting ready for a Thought Balloonists riff, and I’m struck once again by Perez’s yen for symmetry, which is highly useful at times (given the story’s elaborate parallelisms, not least the notion of “parallel” earths) but which is often simply dull. It strikes me as more of a poster-like sense of design, and the insistence on symmetry makes the stuff seem sort of cramped and arhythmic to me.

    I’ve noticed in reading picture storybooks that rules of composition that might apply to gallery painting are often violated in favor of a relentless left-to-right rhythm. Left- and right-hand margins become charged with narrative potential, and the most important subjects in a spread are often way off-center, which seems to “activate” the negative space around them and create a kind of narrative suspense (which becomes all the more meaningful when successive images are considered in series).

    That’s not to say that such strategies, or similar strategies, do not obtain, ever, in traditional painting. But in book-bound narrative forms, composition seems to be dictacted to a great degree by left-right reading vectors. I imagine that something similar must be at work on the comic book page: not symmmetry, but meaningful asymmetry, often seems to drive composition in comics. To create a relentless reading rhythm.

    Not sure if I’m misconstruing your original point re: symmetry, Frank, but I was struck by how far your comment seems to be from how I understand your own work.

    An excellent example, I think, of symmetry overwhelming narrative rhythm can be found in Druillet’s psychedelic stuff (“Lone Sloan”), where the Kirbyesque dynamics are subsumed in purely decorative effects. From my POV, that’s a weakness of Druillet’s work. Kirby’s symmetries, I think, don’t give themselves up to the unprepared eye so easily, and they don’t end up seeming merely decorative. Hence their great dynamism, their narrative crackle.

  20. Frank Santoro says:

    Hey Charles

    I think the left to right reading vectors you mention are not so rigid. I feel that the grid, the symmetrical grid, allows for left/right and up/down movement. In fact I think Kirby breaks down this linearity a lot when he’s using the grid. I rarely read his pages in a left to right manner. I look at the page as a whole and let the movement of the images assert themselves. It can be deadening, I agree, but I’m speaking more of an “unfolding” that is allowed with the grid that can be curtailed when using asymmetrical grids that sort of fall in on themselves like bad architecture.

    no computer these days so thats all I got for now…

Leave a Reply