The late Jack Kirby (1917-1994) remains, in my estimation, one of the true 20th century visionaries to come out of New York City.

To comic book cultists and illustrators alike, Kirby is the medium’s doyen. To the larger art world, however, his work is mostly unassessed. His many comebacks also rivaled that of Frank Sinatra.

Kirby created the Captain America character in the 1940s, then abruptly switched to romantic comic books when the Comics Code scandal of the early ’50s essentially banned the kind of violence and kinetic dare-devilry Kirby’s early work embodied. Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein turned to these emotionally-troubled panels of domesticity for his ’60s paintings on canvas, though by then Kirby had moved on once again… this time to the newly-minted Marvel Comics, where from 1961-70 he was responsible for illustrating, writing, and co-creating some of the imprint’s most enduring characters, including the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, the Incredible Hulk, Thor, and the Avengers.

Contractual disputes in the early ’70s sent Kirby packing… this time for Marvel’s rival, DC Comics, where the aging artist created his Fourth World Saga, an ambitious trilogy of titles that captured the psychedelic generation’s hunger for mind alteration and social justice through a wily pack of mystic superheroes and ambiguous shape-shifters.

By the late ’70s, the Lower Eastside native was woo’d by Hollywood to create animation cells and conceptual art for sci-fi films and television shows. Among Kirby’s many projects from 1979-81 was his design work for a proposed adaptation of the Roger Zelazny novel Lord of Light.

As those who saw the recent Oscar-winning film Argo might recall, plans quickly fell apart and the production was abandoned. Until, that is, the U.S. Embassy in Iran was stormed by revolutionaries in 1979 and six American diplomats narrowly escaped to the home of a nearby Canadian ambassador. The CIA then came up with a plan to use Kirby’s artwork and its concept for the Lord of Light film (retitled Argo) to allow agents, disguised as movie makers, to exfiltrate the hostages safely back to the U.S. (It worked.)

Argo is a story like none other in the history of art and film, and for the first time, this August, the public will get to see what Iranian leaders saw (and were duped by) back in 1979. 

Heavy Metal magazine recently announced it will print some of Kirby’s Argo illustrations in its next issue and is offering limited edition blacklight posters of 14 drawings, as well.

This is not the first time Kirby’s work has been produced for the head-shop medium; all through the 1970s, Third Eye/Marvel printed thousands of blacklight posters based on Kirby panels from his iconic ’60s books, none of which Kirby ever saw a dime for. A recent settlement between Marvel and the Kirby family claims to’ve made up for any past abuses.

What to expect then from these newly-unveiled illustrations?

For one, Kirby’s style had so far advanced by the late ’70s that he seemed capable of just about anything. His chiascurro of fabric and muscles bordered on the abstract, while his blocky, geometric line work is a pop culture distillation of many 20th century design styles, from constructivism, to plasticism, to op-art.

A work like Brahma Supremacy (seen above) shows Kirby deep in the wonderlands of machination and fauna, science and Eastern mysticism. Its metamorphosis of remote objects and ritual into eye-catching universality makes the work something of a late addition to the surrealist canon (itself no stranger to blacklight posters).

In the end, though, Kirby wrote no reactionary manifestos, gave no polarizing interviews, made no anarchical gestures to overthrow an entrenched cultural elite. He toiled quietly at his drawing board for 50+ years, while the vast majority of his work was in service of larger narratives (many of which he wrote, as well as illustrated). There are so many Kirby comic books and original drawings that it remains both difficult for critics to pinpoint exact masterpieces and gallerists to assess worth.

Kirby, for this website, however, is the epitome of what we value: a vision so deep and so true that every prior notion we have about art is called into question. Art is necessary like religion, which is to say, not at all. Call Jack Kirby whatever you want: designer, illustrator, artist. I prefer genius. (Brian Chidester)

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