Marvel's Jack Kirby versus DC's Curt Swan--Who was the better artist?
Kirby vs. Swan--Who Do You Think Was Best?
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?
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