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“Everybody could tell any of my covers a mile away on the newsstand, and that satisfied me.” –Jack Kirby
The Looking Glass World of Jack Kirby’s 1970s Fantastic Four Covers: Or, What If The King of Superhero Comics Never Abdicated?
by BK Munn
You gotta go away before you come back.

Meanwhile, Roy Thomas kept asking Jack to draw the Fantastic Four. Thomas tried to make things as beneficial and fair for Jack as possible. A top name in comics, Thomas said he’d do the writing but speak to Stan and others to ensure Jack received credit for the plots he created with his artwork. He wouldn’t receive much more money, he told Jack, but he’d be able to do as he pleased and see his name appear first in the credits. It was a decent offer, but Jack rejected it nonetheless. He’d only do it, Jack said, if Thomas gave him a panel-by-panel breakdown for each story. Thomas rightly felt this was ridiculous. “We’d have had such a closed-off relationship,” he said later, “it wasn’t worth doing. So I dropped the idea.”
But he did ask if Jack would be willing to draw the Fantastic Four in an issue of What If titled “What If the Fantastic Four Were the Original Marvel Bullpen?” In this tale, instead of Reed Richards, Ben Grimm, Sue Storm, and Johnny Storm, Stan would appear in costume as Mr. Fantastic, Jack would be the cigar-chomping, rock-covered Thing, former production manager Sol Brodsky would be the Human Torch, and Flo Steinberg –who quit the company when Goodman wouldn’t give her a raise– would be the Invisible Girl. Roy Thomas wanted to write the issue, but Jack said he wouldn’t work with another writer. And if another artist handled it, he added, he wouldn’t let them use his likeness. Roy let him create the story, but after reading the final work, Stan said that he disliked how Jack’s character kept calling him “Stanley.” Roy dutifully changed each reference to “Stan.” And Jack never drew the Fantastic Four again in a Marvel comic.
–Ronin Ro, Tales to Astonish (2004)

Jack Kirby left Marvel and the Fantastic Four, for the first time, in 1970. Angry over Stan Lee’s credit-hogging and a lack of compensation and royalties for the comics he worked on, Kirby moved to DC, where he enjoyed, for a little while at least, more creative freedom and sole-authorship credit on his Fourth World series of books. Returning to Marvel in 1975, Kirby took over the reins of two of his older co-creations, writing and drawing the monthly adventures of Captain America and Black Panther, as well as a number of other original creations, including Devil Dinosaur, Machine Man, and his late-career masterpiece, The Eternals. In addition, Kirby was contracted by Marvel to produce a certain amount of covers for other titles every month. Among these covers, many very striking and iconic, were a number featuring the Fantastic Four.
Kirby’s relationship with the FF post-1970 was very problematic. The flagship title of the Marvel line, the series in which Stan and Jack had hammered out, through trial-and-error and various levels of collaboration, the successful Marvel style of the 1960s, was also one of the series Kirby was the most invested in on a personal level. Despite its cosmic trappings, the Fantastic Four was really about the importance of family and responsibility, and many of the characters, especially Ben Grimm, aka monster-hero The Thing, can occasionally be read as authorial stand-ins for Kirby. The concepts, plots and characters Kirby had provided for the FF were the foundation of the fictional Marvel Universe but also represented a real-world million-dollar merchandising empire he did not participate in financially, having been paid a straight page-rate for their creation without obvious legal claim to ownership. Incredibly, during the mid-70s, Kirby didn’t even own the original artwork for his 1960s stories, and it was not until a protracted public battle in the 1980s, long after The King had retired from regular comics making, that a portion of the thousands of original pencils were returned to him. He was understandably bitter about the situation and although he needed the work, refused to contribute any new stories or characters to the mythos of his signature series when he returned to Marvel.
That didn’t stop him from illustrating covers for new stories being told by the younger artists who had taken over the assignment in his absence, a compromise that yielded a substantial number of memorable works. Kirby’s new bosses at Marvel recognized that as a former publisher and a historic innovator of genres and formats, Kirby was a past master of the art of the comic book cover as marketing and storytelling tool, and at this point in time must have known almost instinctively the importance of galvanizing reader attention through a combination of bombast, mystery, and unusual text and visuals. Kirby was also fast, able to churn out drawings to be used as inventory and emergency fill-ins. Many of his covers from this period are classics of the form; object lessons in the delicate combination of salesmanship and narrative art. Even at their most workmanlike and straightforward, his covers are concise, concentrated doses of Kirby-tude; unmistakably works by his confident hand.
Despite the rise of a new generation of artists at Marvel in the 1970s, the house style was still an ersatz Kirby –legend has it that new recruits were often handed a pile of old Kirby comics and told something along the lines of, “Draw like this.” Even in this milieu of watered-down versions of his own style, Kirby covers stood apart on the stands, and visually represent something of a separate line of superhero comics within the larger universe of the company. As a dependable workhorse, besides illustrating his own group of books, his style was also used to sell everything from bottom-tier books, marquee names, and special projects, putting the King’s stamp on up to 13 comics per month, including several of his old 60s characters: The Avengers, The Incredible Hulk, and the jewel-in-the-crown, The Fantastic Four.
In a way, looking at Kirby’s 70s cover art, it’s possible to imagine an alternate history, one in which Kirby never stopped working on the series , continuing to tell the stories of Marvel’s “first family” with his signature innovative graphic approach. Kirby’s legacy of FF covers provide a tantalizing glimpse of this parallel dimension.
For the FF, and FF spin-off Marvel Two-In-One (starring the Thing), each featuring some version of his original team, Kirby drew twenty-three 1970s covers in all (the number increases when we consider the new or altered covers Kirby provided for a few issues of Marvel’s Greatest Comics, the Fantastic Four reprint title being published at the same time, as well as assorted annuals and special Treasury editions). Many of the comics covers from this period were based on designs and suggestions by Marvel’s in-house artist, colourist, inker and troubleshooting jill-of-all-trades Marie Severin, who worked closely with the New York editors in maintaining a consistent look for the line, based in part on the quality and approach to design pioneered by Kirby a decade earlier. Severin, her editors, and procuction manager John Verpoorten would often send Kirby (living in California by then) a batch of very rough cover sketches as part of his monthly assignment, with brief plot and character notes scrawled in the margins, and compositions indicating the basic conflicts needing highlighting. Most of these  layouts are fairly standard and unimaginative, with just bare-bones placements of figures and minimal backgrounds, although some I have seen have a distinct flair and graphic inventiveness. Beyond emphasizing costume details (which in any case could be easily fixed by attentive inkers), I suspect the designs Severin sent Kirby were even more basic than those given to others, since Kirby’s driven reliability was one of the reasons Marvel was retaining his services. (Severin seems to have had a closer working relationship with Bill Everett, doing detailed layouts that played to the artist’s strengths and interests on the Submariner covers they conspired on together earlier in the decade.) Regardless, the otherworldly aspect of many of Kirby’s 70s cover assignments from Marvel can in part be attributed to their origins as sketches on Marie Severin’s drawing board.
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My favourite of these is the cover to Fantastic Four #180 (March 1977). Somewhat infamous among fans because it is such a red herring, the interior of this issue is actually a reprint of FF #101 from 1970 featuring Kirby art and story from the end of his initial run, and has nothing to do with the scene advertised on the exterior. Explained as a case of the “dreaded deadline Doom” [1] in an editorial blurb pasted onto the reprint’s splash-page, the actual story referred to by the cover was not to appear until the following month’s issue #181 (which of course featured a different, new, Kirby composition).
So the cover of issue 180 actually has no real referent, fittingly so since it seems to imagine an alternate universe FF composed of The Thing and a rag-tag group made up of former villains: Thundra, Tigra, and Impy, the Impossible Man.[2] Kirby had incorporated one-time villains like the Inhuman Medusa and her sister Crystal into the FF in the Sixties (adding evil mutants Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch to The Avengers during the same period), beginning a tradition continued through to the modern era., and co-evolutionary with the tradition of substitute or second-string teams replacing original line-ups, and the Marvel writers who replaced him were no strangers to the gimmick. Even more meta, each of the characters on this cover are essentially alternate-universe intruders into Marvel continuity. Thundra is an Amazon from a parallel-world feminist dystopia; Tigra comes from a dimension of cat-like humans; and Impy from the planet Popup where an advanced case of parallel evolution has given the humanoid inhabitants control over every molecule in their bodies.
ff176In this Bizarro World set-up, both the female characters have romantic feelings for The Thing, here usurping the alpha-male leader role from his buddy, the tradionally handsome Mr. Fantastic, while the powerful yet wildly-unpredictable Impossible Man acts out an arch disdain for straight superheroics in favour of fun, novelty and a love of popular culture. His character, who a few issues earlier (FF #176 –featuring another classic metatextual Kirby cover) had actually forced his way into the offices (and onto the pages) of Marvel Comics in a weird moment of real world crossover, is a specific comic book type, modeled on the Puck-ish, other-dimensional nuisance characters Mr. Mxypltlk and Bat-Mite, eternal tormentors of Superman and Batman over in DC Comics.
The plot the cover is supposed to illustrate is part of a longer storyline by Roy Thomas and George Perez about an alternate-universe Reed Richards (who, instead of possessing cosmic-ray-created stretch powers, in his own reality is transformed into a Thing-like monster known as The Brute) who schemes to strand our FF in the Negative Zone dimension –a redux of the classic Stan and Jack alternate universe tale, “This Man, This Monster!” from FF #89. Roy Thomas seemed to love doppelgangers and tributes, and his bibliography is littered with fantasy-football-style superteams made up of pet characters that refer in some way to older or alternate versions of themselves. After Kirby’s example, writer-editor Thomas was the first high priest of the “Never Create Anything Really New for Marvel Again” religion (a religion that Kirby himself didn’t fully become a convert to until 1979, almost as if he couldn’t help himself from creating and giving value for the money he was being paid), preferring to plunder past comics for characters and concepts, fan-fiction style, in the process transforming the once-innovative Marvel into a staid, brand-protecting entity, content to rest on the laurels of its 60s achievements, with only brief flare-ups of creativity and injections of novelty through stunts and slavish trend-following, occasionally enabled by licensing and blatant rip-offs.
Along with his other ongoing series, this cover teases a “what might have been?” if Kirby had stayed at Marvel instead of leaving for DC in 1970. The character designs for the aborted Inhumans series Kirby left on the drawing board famously morphed into The Forever People at DC, but doesn’t this “kooky quartet” have a glimmer of the “newness” of the Fourth World, just as The Eternals channel Thor by way of the New Gods? On the other hand, it also highlights how Kirby had become a stranger in his own house, like Howard the Duck, stranded in a world he never made. At every stage during his second act at Marvel, Kirby was second-guessed, circumscribed, plotted against, undercut, and underappreciated. Boxed in, flashes of Kirby still peak out everywhere.
The composition of the FF #180 cover is a fairly standard one for Kirby and for superhero comics generally. A classic “confrontation” or “face-off” set-up, the scene captures a dramatic moment just before a major action piece, with two opposing groups getting ready to fight it out. The colourful group at the center of the bullseye-style image are encircled by a group of soldiers, almost comically bristling with weapons, partly softened or humanized by their commander, looking over his shoulder at the reader but directing all attention to the heroes and the supine robot they are defending. Hints about the characteristics of this new team are apparent in their attitudes and dialogue. The pugnacious Thing is obviously the leader, and his word balloon suggests “this little foursome” are more confrontational than his regular, older partners. Thundra looks like a giant sci-fi punk/disco street-fighter and Tigra’s pose reveals her feline nature almost as much as her stripes and claws. (As well, both women exemplify the barbarian/monster-chic then holding sway at Marvel.) Despite his great power and “advanced” evolution, Impy is ironically the weakest link, and the cover shows this. He is stand-offish, dismissing the entire scene with a gesture and a poo-pooing grimace, perhaps representing the comics fan who has seen one too many of these brainless brawls over a tin-man macguffin and would be happier with some more self-directed fan-service suited to his sensitive ego (a very 70s comics fan sentiment, I’m sure!). The scene ably illustrates a key aspect of the comic’s plot and team-dynamic while creating curiosity about the origin and resolution of the stand-off. Readers familiar with the original team’s make-up may find themselves wondering about this new quartet (Where are the original members of the FF? Who are these upstarts?), anxiously searching their pockets for the requisite three dimes to discover the answer.
The slick inks that add to the appeal of this image are provided by long-time Kirby inker Joe Sinnott, his artistic “partner” in most of the late-period 1960s Fantastic Four issues. While Kirby provided very tight, finished pencils for most of the work he did from the late-50s on, including very fine detail, shading and areas of black, Sinnott famously smoothed whatever roughness Kirby’s drawing had while at the same time being very loyal to the original pencil linework he was making legible for print. Contrast this with many inkers Stan Lee paired Kirby with who actually obscured or reduced Kirby’s pencils (the infamous Vince Colleta, for example). The K/S signature in the lower right indicates that this is a Kirby/Sinnott collaboration, a “seal of quality” that assures us Sinnott is on board, doing his own part in providing continuity with the previous era as well as perhaps ensuring that Jack’s rendering of newer characters he has no working familiarity with (in this case, Thundra and Tigra) are “on model” in terms of costume. The Silver Age veneer Sinnott brought to all his work, as well as his experience with Kirby, was a great boon to Marvel after Jack’s original departure, aiding the transition to able replacements like John Buscema and John Romita and adding a bit of the familiar Kirby sheen and shimmer to the work of lesser lights who came on board later.

memo from Marvel production manager John Verpoorten asking Jack to add “the Kirby touch” to a Nova cover sketch by Marie Severin)

Between November 1975 and December 1978 Kirby was drawing between 30 and 100 pages of comics stories, and between 4 and 13 (!) covers monthly for Marvel, so not every one of these images is going to be a timeless classic, but it is remarkable how many still hold up.[3] Most of Kirby’s later covers for the FF feature variations on two or three elementary generic compositions, including multi-figure battles, groups of characters bursting through walls, or groups of characters posing, often with giant or disembodied heads of villains floating overhead (the team had been fighting giant monsters since Kirby drew the cover of Fantastic Four #1 way back in 1961). Many are combinations of these basic ingredients, laid out in geometric, eye-catching patterns (circles, grids, crosses), and it is a tribute to Kirby’s design sense that his dynamic, boxy figures do not seem cramped but instead often appear to spring off the page directly at the reader. There is no doubt that many of Kirby’s covers drawn for the books and stories he created himself during the same period contain more detail, inventiveness, and a greater sense of storytelling, but as made-to-order examples of how to sell a comic book, these covers still pack a whallop.

Kirby redrew his own cover to FF #2 for a 1977 Marvel calendar.

As a child of the 70s, I was among the target demographic for these books and can attest to the allure and power of their effect. The worlds Kirby alluded to with his covers were bizarre, thrilling, and strangely inviting, and I wanted to dive in. I feel lucky that I got in on the tail-end of Kirby’s reign as king of the comic book spinner rack and experienced these worlds firsthand, as mass-market artifacts hot off the press. But I didn’t know they were twilight worlds, that Kirby, and superhero comics in general, were fading from the public stage. Excepting a few licensed products like Star Wars, comic sales were in long-term decline, with the propping-up effect of the direct market and a network of comic shops still a few years off. Kirby’s trumpeted return to Marvel was really a last hurrah, a weird echo of former glories largely comprised of pastiche, bitterness, and desperation-tinged exhaustion for both the artist and the genre he helped create. Kirby would finish his working life in the tv animation industry, with only a few more stabs at creator-owned comics in the 1980s. His last two published stories for Marvel (Machine Man #8 and 9) are titled “Super Escape” and “In Final Battle.” His last FF image? The cover to the giant-sized Fantastic Four #200 can be read as an allegory of the enduring Kirby theme of scrappy optimistic reason versus fascistic dread, and features a climactic battle between Mr. Fantastic and Dr. Doom bearing the legend “Fight to the Finish!”
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Notes
[1] My favourite example of great art made from missed deadlines is from this same time period: Howard the Duck #16. When writer Steve Gerber moved cross-country from New York to California, he created a text-heavy script that reads as equal parts mental breakdown, road trip diary, and postmodern meditation on superhero comics. Accompanied by full-page illustrations by some of Marvel’s best artists, Gerber’s schizoid inner dialogue with the Howard character tackles such subjects as the superhero fight scene, character development, and comics fandom. An escapee to the animation business as well, Gerber teamed up with Kirby in the 1980s on Destroyer Duck, a comic book series sold to raise funds for Gerber’s fight against Marvel for the rights to Howard the Duck.
[2] Impy the Impossible Man first appeared in Fantastic Four #11 (1963) and was created by Kirby and Stan Lee. Thundra was created by Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway, and John Buscema (FF #129). Tigra was created through a series of stories by Tony Isabella, Roy Thomas, Gil Kane, Don Perlin, and John Romita, Sr.(Giant-Size Creatures #1), based on The Cat, created by Stan Lee and Marie Severin (Claws of the Cat #1)
[3] Kirby’s monthly output can be seen here at Ray Owen’s Chronology. The full list of FF-related covers: FF #164, 167, 171, 172, 173, 174, 175, 176, 177, 180, 181, 190, 200. FF Annual #11, Marvel Treasury Edition #11, What If? #11, Marvel Two-In-One #12, 19, 20, 25, 27. Marvel Two-in-One Annual #1. Marvel’s Greatest Comics #77. I’ve posted most of them at my tumblr.
related:
Should We Boycott Marvel?
Cartoonist Seth on Jack Kirby and the Marvel Boycott
Further reading:
Ex-Kirby assistant Mark Evanier writing on a Jack Kirby forum on Facebook, makes note of the cover creation routine when discussing a rejected Kirby cover for Thor #144:
“Yes, he was paid. The thing a lot of folks don’t get is that almost all the covers drew during this period were done from layout sketches that had been approved in the office, usually by Stan. Once in a while, Jack did a sketch (there’s an example in my Kirby book) but about 95% were sketches by Marie Severin, John Romita or someone else.
After the cover was done, Stan (or Martin Goodman or occasionally someone else) might look at it and say, “Gee, we can come up with a better cover than this” and if there was time, they might toss the old cover and start over. This most often happened after the cover had been inked and all the logos and lettering were in place but this was a rare instance of the decision being made when Jack brought in the pencils. That was why Jack had the drawing. They decided then and there not to use it so he took it home.
So in this case, someone did a sketch, Stan (it was probably Stan) okayed it, Jack drew it as per the sketch and then Stan said, “We can do better.” My first day up at the Marvel offices, I was there when John Verpoorten came up to Stan with the artwork for a finished non-Kirby cover. Stan said, “That’s not so good. Do we have time to do a new one?” and Verpoorten said, “It has to ship in an hour.” Stan suggested moving around some of the lettering but otherwise it went to press as is.
They were really fussy about covers then, always trying to find some way to make them 1% better. That’s why so many of them have some little gratutious change in them. With Stan, it was usually to have John Romita or Marie Severin redraw one body part of the hero, usually his face to make it more intense.
But so many people see a “rejected” Kirby cover and they think it was all Jack’s design and Stan foolishly didn’t love it. No, Stan had approved the cover design and since Jack had drawn it as per the approved layout, he was paid. He was never paid enough as far as I’m concerned but he was paid.”