Marvel's Jack Kirby versus DC's Curt Swan--Who was the better artist?

Kirby vs. Swan--Who Do You Think Was Best?

Grandeur from the King
Grandeur from the King
Classic elegance from Swan
Classic elegance from Swan

Comic Artists: Who Was the Best in the '60s?


I got my indoctrination into the world of comics in the 1960’s and never looked back. I was a fan of the superhero comics, and found both Marvel and their Distinguished Competition (as Marvel frequently called DC) compelling.

I discovered comics before I even learned to read—the artwork sucked me in. I liked the main titles from both DC and Marvel. After starting with Superman and DC, I gradually drifted toward the Marvel Comics offerings. I found it easier to relate to the humanity of the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man than the immutable heroism of DC heroes, but I never totally abandoned them. I was an avid fan of the Justice League and followed most of the heroes in their own titles. Marvel’s tendency to guest-star heroes in other titles pleased me, and from the Fantastic Four I happily discovered Spider-Man, Thor, Daredevil, the Hulk, etc.

As I mentioned, the artwork offered in comics from this era drew me in, as did the artists who most epitomized the “house style” of their respective companies: Curt Swan with DC, and Jack Kirby with Marvel. Who was better? Let’s compare and contrast their styles and see if we might come to a conclusion. One thing I will not discuss in this forum is the creative input each had in shaping the comics they contributed to, since it is an ongoing debate how much Kirby influenced the Marvel Universe with his ideas. I will discuss only artwork.

Jack Kirby. Kirby was the ultimate action-artist. The forward, in-your-face style he perfected is still used by the best artists today. Kirby drew action-packed comics (specifically fight scenes) better than anyone, and hand-to-hand combat is still the standard fare of any superhero comic. His action poses were always dynamic, and his characters exhibited strength unparalleled in comic history.

Kirby never skimped on backgrounds, either. He never short-changed us by offering heroes combating in empty space. Usually it was New York City that bore the brunt of his epic confrontations, complete with crowds of onlookers and buildings that looked real.

Jack was the best at more than just fighting, however. He drew machinery like no one else, with complex structures and unending dials, knobs, and lights. We could believe Reed Richards was a genius just by looking at the equipment he had in the Baxter Building. The fantastic machines extended to robots as well, from the Sentry to Torgo, Quasimodo, the Fourth Sleeper, the Destroyer, and the Punisher (the robot Galactus employed). Kirby also gave us some of the most original and complex costume designs, as well. Sure, the Fantastic Four’s outfits were relatively simple, but what about their two main foes, Dr. Doom and Galactus? Those costumes are amazing! Remember Loki’s green costume with the odd helmet, and the regal garments Odin wore in Thor? No one but Kirby could have come up with the look those characters sported. His monsters were unmatched, also, starting with the most lovable monster of all—the Thing. Ben Grimm evolved over the years, but the look always remained unique, slightly grotesque, and yet human. Kirby cut his teeth in the monster comics of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, and it showed with Blastaar, Annihilus, Fin Fang Foom, Surtur and the rest. Jack’s monsters were always visually stunning.

Kirby had his faults as an artist, though. His women weren’t always the most attractive, for example. They were voluptuous, but it frequently looked as if they were wearing wigs—Jack didn’t always draw women’s hair well. His men sometimes devolved into standard faces, distinguishable only by hair or clothing. Don Blake, Steve Rogers and Johnny Storm looked an awful lot alike with their blonde hair parted on the side.


Curt Swan. Swan’s style was always elegant, stylish, and flat-out beautiful. Swan’s action scenes were as good as anyone’s in comics except Kirby’s. The poses lacked Kirby’s raw power but were graceful and natural. Swan didn’t offer the exaggerated fight scenes, knocking down buildings or busting rocks with each punch, but his men and women looked like real people in a fight. When Swan wasn’t drawing Superman, his fight scenes were highly original, and one has to believe the sheer redundancy of drawing the Man of Steel for so many years caused Swan to lapse into “stock-poses”.

Speaking of the people in Swan’s comics, the men were handsome and the women were always gorgeous. Swan’s women rivaled those drawn by John Romita Sr. for physical beauty, and he accomplished this without overdue exaggeration of women’s curves. When he drew the Legion, the heroes really looked like teenagers and not just smaller men and women. He was good with the supporting casts in comics, also—Lois, Jimmy, Perry, et.al, was identifiable and unique, and his people “on the streets” looked fresh and never cartoonish.

Swan’s backgrounds were not as elaborate as Kirby’s, but he did not skimp on scenery. The settings he created were as vivid as anyone’s, and he rose to the occasion with the surreal, futuristic look of the Legion of Super-Heroes. His cityscapes were intricate if not overly detailed, and his scenery grounded the story without distracting from it. When teamed with a detail-oriented inker (such as George Perez, for example), Swan’s art blossomed without being overwhelmed by the inker’s style.

Swan wasn’t perfect, however. Swan’s machines and robots could be as goofy as Kirby’s were cool. Computo, the robot-machine that menaced the Legion, was a yellow box with a weird head on top and tentacles. The Sentry would’ve pounded Computo. Swan’s Superman was too barrel-chested for my taste, and he struggled to draw a REALLY tough guy. His men looked strong and athletic, but never dangerous.

It sounds as though I prefer Kirby to Swan, but let’s take the comparison a step further. One way to gauge who was best is to ask who you would rather see draw the other guy’s heroes? Which would be cooler—to see Kirby do the Legion of Super-Heroes, or find out what Swan’s Fantastic Four or Thor might have looked like? With all due respect to Jack, I believe Swan would have been far more comfortable in the Marvel Universe than Kirby would have been at DC. I know, I know, Kirby worked for DC for five years, but he only drew a few characters from their mainstream, and Superman and Jimmy were redrawn by Al Plastino and Murphy Anderson. Kirby’s Deadman was okay but nothing more.

I would love to see what Swan would have done with the Fantastic Four, Captain America, or Thor. One has to believe he could have excelled at any of Jack’s magazines, and his Captain America might have been superb. Think of what Swan might have done with the original Avengers or the X-Men. It is difficult to imagine a Marvel comic Curt Swan could not have capably drawn, but I doubt the reverse is true. Kirby would have given us a compelling 30th century for the Legion, but could he have made the Legionnaires look unique?

I will leave determining who the better artist was to you, the reader, but I will also indicate that my childhood preference was Kirby. Jack won me over to Marvel from DC—which of course was part of his job. Because he managed to do that, I give an ever-so-slight edge to the “King”, while acknowledging these two fine artists as among the greatest in their profession.

Who do you think was best?


Who do you prefer?

Who was the better comic book artist in the 1960's?

  • Jack Kirby
  • Curt Swan
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Comments 14 comments

Linda 6 years ago

Curt Swan was best, although I like Jack Kirby also.


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Mike Lickteig 6 years ago from Lawrence KS USA Author

Hard to go wrong with either choice, Linda.


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bill yon 6 years ago from sourcewall

One of the first comic-book scenes I can remember was the red skull holding the cosmic cube and men forming out of dirt with power cascadeing everywhere as Captain America faced off with the red skull.Jack Kirby man. there can be no other.Nuff,said.


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Mike Lickteig 6 years ago from Lawrence KS USA Author

Thanks for your comment, Bill. I remember that scene also. No one drew sheer, raw power the way Kirby did. The reason for my post is I'm slightly on the fence, but no artist inspired me the way Jack Kirby did.

Thanks again.


kav 6 years ago

Swan was the master and is sorely underappreciated. His drawing was flawless-his 1950's work was unbelievable-look at the incredible covers he produced. I have made it a point to emulate his style from the silver age. Kirby was ok but everyone looked the same and the fingers looked like slabs of spam.... contact me at bwandasux@aol.com


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Mike Lickteig 6 years ago from Lawrence KS USA Author

Swan was sorely underappreciated, as you say. He was the workhorse of the company for decades, and his style was totally accessible--it was virtually impossible to NOT like it. Both Swan and Kirby provided the house style for their respective companies in the silver age, and both are missed.


The Gorn 6 years ago

I agree Kirby is the King (up to a point). Some of his stuff was total crap, especially when he had to label things so you knew what he was drawing. I had so many mental "Oh, so that's what it is" moments.

Swan on the other hand could be kind of lifeless, but if you asked me how I would rate him compared to the Marvel 70s house style of Romita & Buscema, I would say he beats them hands down. Both of those guys used stock poses and characters who looked like they were always in agony. Some might say they were more dynamic and realistic. My reply is that they are as realistic as William Shatner's acting.


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Mike Lickteig 6 years ago from Lawrence KS USA Author

Gorn, thanks for stopping by and offering your opinion. I agree that most of Kirby's stuff was tremendous and the rest was total crap. There was little in-between, strangely. He was either very good or very bad.

I think Swan compares quite favorably to Buscema and Romita, as you suggest. Romita was known for drawing beautiful women, but Swan's were almost as beautiful. Swan could also make Superboy and the Legion actually look like teen-agers, instead of just smaller adults. Swan got into some stock poses with Superman flying, but when he did anything else, it was terrific--especially with a good inker. When Swan was inked by fellows like George Klein in the early days and fellow artists like George Perez or Jerry Ordway later, his work was breathtaking.

I think Buscema suffered from Marvel demanding he draw like Jack Kirby, and I'm not sure how much of his true talents were seen in comics. His Conan stuff was good although frequently watered down by poor inks, but his super-heroes were always reminiscent of Jack Kirby's.

I liked Swan's fight scenes. They lacked the intensity of Marvel artists or DC mainstays Gil Kane and Carmine Infantino, but they were stylish and unique.

On a closing note, I will say that I enjoyed your reference to William Shatner very much. Thanks again for your comments.

Mike


Dominik 5 years ago

Curt Swan for me:

THE most consistent Artist of all time. Unlike most other artists who hit a peak and then decline, Curts work is great from his first ever superman story in 49 up to the one page he pencilled for the superman wedding album in 96, he drew the man of Steel troughout 5 decades, gave him his classic look and whenever a fellow JLA Member showed up you could see how easily he could have changed to another strip. He's one of the few Artists who NEVER worked with Marvel (kinda like one of his admirers Alan Moore), despite Stan trying to get DCs house style workhorse over to them quite often in the 60s. He was also a nice human being, once saying: "I get more enjoyment out of seeing a young one's smiling face staring into a comic book that I drew than I could possibly get out of having all of the money,? praise and accolades in the world." His drawing inspired Chris Reeves Superman, other Admirers of him are longtime Collaborators Julius Schwartz (the man who singlehandeldy invented the silver age), Denny O'Neil who revamped with him Superman in the early 70s, longtime Writers Elliot S Maggin and Otto Binder and many more. He really is the Norman Rockwell of Comics. An underrated legend whose name i spell in the same sentence as others might say jack Kirby or Steve Ditko. Anohter one of his trademarks was his realistic style and his perfect craft over facial expressions (while others, even Kirby, only had about 3 faces), read anything from his long career and see how realistic it looks quite in the vein of Neal Adams, especially when he worked with denny together and waqs inked by Murphy Anderson he excelled even moore in the realistic department.

AAAAND here for all my Fellow Swanites is a picture Curt drew in 94 of Captain America (beside the official Gladatior Pic he once did it's the only thing i ever saw of a marvel drawn by him), he's even in a classic supermna pose, i also recentlly reread Curt Swan month from the early 90s (when he was back for a month on the supes strip, BEATIFUL, powerfull, the best there is).

THE most consistent Artist of all time. Unlike most other artists who hit a peak and then decline, Curts work is great from his first ever superman story in 49 up to the one page he pencilled for the superman wedding album in 96, he drew the man of Steel troughout 5 decades, gave him his classic look and whenever a fellow JLA Member showed up you could see how easily he could have changed to another strip. He's one of the few Artists who NEVER worked with Marvel (kinda like one of his admirers Alan Moore), despite Stan trying to get DCs house style workhorse over to them quite often in the 60s. He was also a nice human being, once saying: "I get more enjoyment out of seeing a young one's smiling face staring into a comic book that I drew than I could possibly get out of having all of the money,? praise and accolades in the world." His drawing inspired Chris Reeves Superman, other Admirers of him are longtime Collaborators Julius Schwartz (the man who singlehandeldy invented the silver age), Denny O'Neil who revamped with him Superman in the early 70s, longtime Writers Elliot S Maggin and Otto Binder and many more. He really is the Norman Rockwell of Comics. An underrated legend whose name i spell in the same sentence as others might say jack Kirby or Steve Ditko. Anohter one of his trademarks was his realistic style and his perfect craft over facial expressions (while others, even Kirby, only had about 3 faces), read anything from his long career and see how realistic it looks quite in the vein of Neal Adams, especially when he worked with denny together and waqs inked by Murphy Anderson he excelled even moore in the realistic department.

Read more: http://www.faqs.org/shareranks/2386,Top-20-Comic-B...


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Mike Lickteig 5 years ago from Lawrence KS USA Author

Dominik, I share completely your impression of Curt Swan and his magnificent work for so many decades at DC. He was indeed a great, great artist who revolutionized comics in a quiet, subtle way. Your statements are so correct, there's little I can say to add to them. Thanks again.

Mike


Doc Sonic profile image

Doc Sonic 4 years ago from Cape Cod, Massachusetts

Curt Swan is indeed a vastly underrated artist, but, to me, Kirby will always be the King. To some degree I suppose it depends on the nature of the story. In tales of gods, cosmic entities, and fantastic technology, Kirby beats everyone, no contest. These are the types of comics I enjoy, hence my preference for Kirby. But I certainly can see that Swan's style would be better for certain types of stories. And I agree with Dominik about Curt Swan's consistency. From the first page of his career to the last, the quality of Swan's artwork never wavered


Mike Lickteig profile image

Mike Lickteig 4 years ago from Lawrence KS USA Author

Doc Sonic, thanks for your comments. Both Kirby and Swan created the "house style" for their respective companies in the 60's, and neither likely got the attention they deserved for the volume of their work and its excellence. I agree completely about Swan's consistency--he was so good for so long, he was probably taken for granted.

Thanks again.

Mike


Marc 4 years ago

I'm just happy to see Swan compared to Kirby!! I always felt he was underappreciated. I rarely heard him mentioned with the big Silver age artists. I loved his work though. I really loved his art in the 70s inked by Bob Oksner. He did a fill in issue of Batman in the early 80s inked by Rodin Rodriguez & it's opens your eyes as to how good an artist he was!

Kirby just oozed creativity & his books were action packed. He is one of the "ultimate" comic book artists along with George Perez! He's the greater artist in my opinion but I'm happy to see Swan taking his place as one of the giants of the industry!


Mike Lickteig profile image

Mike Lickteig 4 years ago from Lawrence KS USA Author

Marc, thank you for your comments. I appreciate them a great deal. Most people would give Kirby the edge in a direct comparison with Swan, but Swan's style was natural and beautiful. His people were realistic and diverse, and his action scenes, while lacking the power of Kirby's, were graceful and realistic. He was both great and underrated, and I miss his work a lot.

Thanks again.

Mike

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