Aaron Noble's blog about comics, collage, and culture

This Harrowing Mechanism: Jack Kirby Circles Back Around

In late 1950 or early 1951 Jack Kirby drew a double page spread for Boy’s Ranch 3. The six Boy’s Ranch DPSs, unlike the ones he would begin doing again at Marvel in the ’60s, and build up to a thunderous visual poetry at DC (and then again Marvel) in the ’70s, were self-contained vignettes, independent of the stories around them. This one, the finest of the six in my view, is called “Social Night in Town”. It depicts a friendly barroom brawl in the fictional western town of Four Massacres, and it features the Boy’s Ranch cast fighting inconspicuously among a load of extras. Mother Delilah, the eponymous false-hearted mother from the most famous Boy’s Ranch tale, also makes an appearance in upper right, which places the brawl chronologically earlier than the events of the story, in which Delilah dies. Disorientingly, the spread follows immediately after the story in the printed comic, making it  a sort of nostalgic pick-me-up after the tragic pitch of “Mother Delilah.” Or perhaps it is a vision of cowboy Valhalla, where Del and the boys will be reunited, and the Last Chance Saloon is always jumping off. [Click images to enlarge]

Twenty-two years later, in Mister Miracle 8, Kirby found an opportunity to draw another free-for-all. This time we are on the planet Apokolips, in the barracks of the Female Furies: a special powers unit of Darkseid’s military. Kirby sums up the situation with great clarity (and dubious grammar): “The Furies, now leaderless and undisciplined, gives free vent to its problem of choosing a new leader”.

Glen David Gold, in his essay for the Masters of American Comics show, wonders whether Kirby may have had an eidetic, or “photographic” memory. He was not known to sketch out thumbnails of his panels in advance as many comic artists do. Observers report that he started drawing in the upper left hand corner of a blank board and continued until he finished in the lower right, as though he had the whole page in his mind from the beginning. What I see in these two drawings is an artist who kept a whole set of solutions –and even thematic associations  –to a spectacularly complicated picture in his mind for twenty years, ready to be reworked into a tour-de-force of narrative drawing when the scene came back around.

Both spreads are composed with diagonals spreading down and out from the top of a vertical just right of center. Classic compositional exits appear in mirrored positions: A window in upper left of “Social Night” and, more richly, the opening to an equipment storage space in upper right of the unit barracks. A classic Simon & Kirby shadow arch closes the top of the older spread, while Kirby’s later free-form shadows do exactly the same thing in Mister Miracle. The one-point perspective of 1950 shifts to a more dynamic two-point space in 1972. The obvious vertical of the pillar in the saloon is replaced by a barely noticeable doorway at the back of the barracks, reinforced by the exercise bar uprights on either side. The fact that this subtler, distributed vertical nonetheless anchors the narrative focal point of the scene testifies to the advanced point of Kirby’s mastery in the early ’70s. He’s achieved all the visual complexity of “Social Night,”and more, and the panel works as comics, advancing the story. Big Barda has returned to resume command of her unit, but no one else in the scene has noticed her yet. The number of figures in the barracks fight is only about half that of the saloon cowboys (and we should remember that Kirby was working on much larger boards in the ’50s), but each one of the Furies is a fully realized character, with her own costume and weapons specialty –a massive upgrade in the level of sustained invention. Most of them, including the main combatants, were never seen again outside this panel. Another advance in dynamics is the range of scale represented, from tiny Barda, entering at the back, to the red-helmeted blonde looming huge in the right foreground. Kirby’s depth of field, persuasive in the ’50s, had become supercharged in the ’70s. It’s as though he figured out how to fit more space into the space. At the same time, Kirby refines his 1950 idea of relegating the stars of the comic to the sidelines of this big, showcase panel. Only Barda, in the doorway, and Bernadeth, at far left, are important in the rest of the story.

There are a number of visual parallels. Each scene has a watchful beer drinker, and they mirror each other perfectly across time, space, and genre. Each of them has another character directly above them, weapon raised in the air. Unexpectedly, it’s not a cowboy but a warrior of Apokolips that wields a lasso– an item seemingly left out of the Last Chance Saloon brawl, finally restored to the fray.

Both pictures also feature an agile character swinging around a pole. Both poles come with a knife right below the gymnast, and a prostrate figure right behind the knife.

When the Boy’s Ranch run was reprinted in 1991, another twenty years on, Kirby wrote a forward. He evoked the hard frontier towns, like Four Massacres, at the mercantile edge of the westward expansion. “Individuals and interesting personalities developed in this harrowing mechanism,” he writes, “and shaped themselves into the only forms they felt were appropriate for one’s safety– weapons.” Harrowing Mechanism: also a perfect description of the orphanage of Granny Goodness on Apokolips, where Scott Free (AKA Mister Miracle) and Big Barda were raised and brutally shaped into soldiers. Granny, with her deranged neediness, her toxic child-rearing on an industrial scale, is Mother Delilah on bad acid. The narrative doesn’t allow for Granny’s presence in the brawl panel –in fact Barda is about to lead an assault on Granny’s private torture theater –but her spirit is there. As Barda herself claims in this same issue, on the verge of throttling the old harridan, “Why I’m the purest, most superior product you ever turned out!”

This brings me to my last comparison. Entering at the back of each drawing, tiny but carefully framed with Kirby’s jagged, energetic lines, we find essentially the same character: a hot-tempered, beautiful orphan with game-changing combat abilities. Angel, the long-haired blond gunfighter leaping the bar in “Social Night in Town” is the most proficient and unpredictable gunman of the Boy’s Ranch cast, just as Big Barda is the most powerful and hair-trigger member of Mister Miracle’s troupe. It is Angel who is seduced and betrayed by Mother Delilah in Boy’s Ranch 3. To avenge a sexual humiliation at the hands of Angel’s guardian, she pretends to mother him, then hacks off his hair and makes him a laughing-stock. In Mister Miracle, the sexual energies of the dark mother are focused on the boy, Scott Free, and it is Barda, the gunslinger, who acts as guardian. Scott, like all the male recruits of Granny Goodness (her “soldier boys”), has his head shaved, but, unlike the rest, he secretly grows his hair back under the regulation hood.

Stepping calmly into the fray, certain of their ability to either end the fighting or to drastically enhance the carnage, Angel and Barda are siblings in Kirby’s vast panoply. Yonder stands your orphan, with his gun.