Jack Kirby’s Inverted Pyramid

A Word To The Wise: After locking up my old blog, The Fortress Of Fortitude, and throwing away the key, it was brought to my attention that one of the posts I so hastily deleted was written in collaboration with a number of bloggers as part of an Internet event known as “Panel Madness.” Devised by the ever-brilliant Plok, the meme involved picking a random panel of art from a comic-book or other publication and describe just what made it a great piece of storytelling. It was a great idea that inspired a number of great essays from writers I admire a great deal.  In the interests of keeping Plok’s meme intact, here’s my humble contribution to the effort. If you’d like to read the other entries – and by all means, you should – check out the “Panel Madness” sidebar over at A Trout In The Milk. And now, back from the grave for one night only, here’s your friendly neighborhood Fortress Keeper.

The Keeper has chosen the following panel from “The Traitorous Challenger,” a story by Dave Wood and Jack Kirby that appeared in Challengers Of The Unknown #2.

Panel Madness!

At first blush, it might seem like an odd choice given that the tale featured a box-like turtle monster that sported a vacuum cleaner for a head. Why go for a seemingly group shot when you’re dealing with an artist known for his wild imagination and vivid action sequences.

First of all, let’s consider the “bigger picture.” (When discussing Kirby comics, it’s necessary to use a lot of “quotes.”)

“The Traitorous Challenger” was published in 1958, an era when Lois Lane devoted herself to tricking Superman into marriage and Wonder Woman tussled every other month with some sort of evil doppelganger. The notorious “Good Girls” of the Golden Age, who were generally strong and competent characters despite their cheesecake appeal, were scattered to the four winds by the force of the Comics Code.

In this climate, June Robbins – who wasn’t even considered an “official” Challenger – occupied a rather unique and unheralded space in comics history: a strong female character who solved problems with her wits. Heck, her action togs weren’t even all that revealing!

And let’s face it, fan people, how many times have we seen a comic where the male leads marvel over a heroine’s prowess while she poses in a manner that states – rather emphatically – that she not only deserves but expects such respect! No shy smiles or blushing cheeks for our June!

But we’re supposed to discuss The King’s art here, not conduct a sociology lecture. The Keeper isn’t exactly a graduate of the Joe Kubert School Of Art so any mention of technical form should be taken with a grain of salt. Your humble host is no expert, but he does know what he likes as the old saying goes. And, of course, we can all agree that Jack Kirby is great … right?

(If you think differently, we’ve got a lot more to discuss than a panel from a 30-year-old comic-book!)

So, using terminology this old journalist understands, let’s look at Kirby’s use of what we call “The Inverted Pyramid.” The phrase usually refers to writing news ledes (essentially, draw readers in with general information before hitting them with the specific point), but we believe it works in this instance as well.

The four Challengers provide the base of the pyramid, guiding us to the main point of the panel: June Robbins, triumphant.

Let’s look at the Challengers’ figures for an instant. For guys who are just standing around, there’s a lot going on. Prof is leaning forward, Ace and Red beam their approval and Rocky is rather bemused, crossing his arms and sporting a wry smile.

The apex of the pyramid, of course, is June. Despite her small stature, the character’s posture is as straight as a rail. The expression on her face is confidence personified, accepting the Challengers’ acknowledgement as her just due for a job well done. Like Rocky, her arms are crossed but the body language is completely different, almost haughty.

The coloring of the panel brings June even more to the forefront. We don’t exactly have digital perfection here, but Ms. Robbins’ red jumpsuit stands out against the Challenger’s purple outfits and the dark sky behind our heroes’ backs – adding yet another layer to our pyramid.

Digital perfection? Forget all that; we have a panel that achieves a 3-D effect without the 3-D, a piece of old-school legerdemain that “out-beyonds” Superman Beyond by “popping” June Robbins right off the printed page.

Actually, our use of the phrase “dark sky” simplifies things a bit too much.

Shades of lighter blue intermingle with black, suggesting that the Challengers’ darkest hour is now behind our intrepid foursome. Rocky mentions the adventures that lie ahead, adding still another component to the outward push of the illustration.

(Yeesh. And we thought those old Superman panels where Clark winked at the reader were Meta.)

So, there’s really nothing static at all about what could have been a throwaway panel. Instead, you get proto-feminism along with some 3-D hocus-pocus! Who else but The King, right?

And now, over to Derik Badman