Jul 29, 2017

Marvel Needs to Rebrand Jack Kirby

Jack Kirby is the greatest superhero comics artist of all time, the one from whom every modern telling of the genre has come from. And his impact is bigger than ever, as Hollywood has finally caught up to him and the innovations he was coming up with decades ago. And yet, for someone who made his name primarily on Marvel Comics, the company has done very little to celebrate him this 2017, the year of his centennial. And I've finally concluded that...

Marvel Needs to Rebrand Jack Kirby
by Duy

I love Jack Kirby. I didn't get him until I was older. But that's what youth does to you; you like what's available then and there and dislike the older stuff. I loved George Perez and John Byrne so much, and back then they counted as "realistic" (how weird is it that they'd probably be described as "cartoony" now?), that anyone who didn't fall into that vein was "bad" to me. It was decades before I realized Jack Kirby wasn't going for "realistic." He was going for expressionistic power.  The impact lines, the unorthodox layouts, the way he would "cramp" everything into one panel... check out the splash page below and note how Thor and Hercules occupy virtually the entire space, emphasizing how huge they are.

Still, to this day, no one draws a fight like the King drew a fight. But Kirby's influence was so big that it's unbelievably easy to take him for granted, and can usually be more easily demonstrated when you look at comics pre-Kirby's prime and post.

Kirby made his name on Marvel Comics, especially on Thor and the Fantastic Four. His influence is such that the movies have finally caught up to him, with his fingerprints all over the Thor: Ragnarok trailers.

He's felt in all the Marvel movies, and he's even felt in the DC ones, with Justice League using his greatest villainous creation, Darkseid. But considering that his name was built on the Marvel brand, it's really strange to me that this year, when he would have turned 100, there's really little the House of Ideas is doing to celebrate him. And it's not even just their new products; it's the smaller things like their search engine optimization. Take a look at this first page of Amazon results when I type "Jack Kirby."

There are three Marvel books on that list: a retrospective about his contributions to Marvel, Monsters, and Machine Man. Everything else is DC or an artbook. So is this how Marvel is going to use Jack Kirby? They're only going to use him as a selling point if the character of the book isn't good enough to sell themselves?

That seems like a giant waste of an opportunity. This is the greatest superhero creator of all time. And meanwhile, the bulk of his Marvel work is kept in formats such as Omnibuses and Epic Collections, which are friendly to longtime collectors and collectors with money. They're pricey and they look good on a shelf, but they're also missing a very easy but important target: a new audience.

This ties into another thing I've been thinking a lot about lately, and that's the evergreen status of DC books compared to Marvel's. DC has a lot of backlog that's great for a new reader. They're only one or two volumes long, for the most part, and they're self-contained. Think of Watchmen, Kingdom Come, and The Dark Knight Returns. There's nothing in there that means you have to read anything else in order to enjoy it. And in-universe, think of The Death of Superman, which yes, plays heavily on Superman continuity at the time, but can be enjoyed completely on its own. DC is really, really good at finding a new audience, and it's because of their stand-alone hits.

Read More Below...

Marvel? When you look back at its entire publishing history, Marvel has had better runs. They have had better long-running series and creators who made their mark by staying on a book for a long time. Frank Miller's Daredevil. Roger Stern's Spider-Man. Roger Stern's Avengers. Kurt Busiek and George Perez's Avengers. Chris Claremont and John Byrne's X-Men. Chris Claremont and Paul Smith's X-Men. Walt Simonson's Thor. Steve Ditko's Dr. Strange. Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's Spider-Man. John Buscema and Alfredo Alcala's Conan.

Jack Kirby's Thor and Fantastic Four.

This makes it more difficult to get into than a DC stand-alone book because it's so overwhelmingly large in terms of both size and monetary value. With their landmarks being more episodic, it's more important for Marvel to distinguish their entry points. And since the comics market both in comics stores and bookstores ends up being skewed towards the older readers now, there is a section in the bookstore that I think Marvel should very proactively target: the children's section.

You know what they sell in the children's section? These books:

Asterix and Tintin are arguably Europe's two biggest comics, and these are their omnibuses, each collecting 3 of their original volumes. As of this writing, the first Asterix Omnibus is #30 in "Comics & Graphic Novels -> Graphic Novels -> Historical & Biographical Fiction", #32 in "Books -> Children's books -> Literature & Fiction -> Historical Fiction -> Europe," and #351 in "Books -> Children's Books -> Comics & Graphic Novels." It is #28,190 overall in "Books."

Tintin's first "omnibus" is #5 in Books > Children's Books > Comics & Graphic Novels > Action & Adventure," #562 in "Books > Children's Books > Classics," and #1493 in "Books > Children's Books > Action & Adventure." It is #27,050 overall in "Books."

Now Thor Epic Collection: God of Thunder? (We're using Thor, by the way, because Kirby is best known at Marvel for Thor and the Fantastic Four, and Thor's the one with the successful movie franchise and the movie coming out. But we could use any Kirby work and the trend would be similar.)  It's #698 in "Books > Comics & Graphic Novels > Publishers > Marvel," #1626 in "Books > Comics & Graphic Novels > Graphic Novels > Superheroes," and #114,851 in "Books." It's not even in the top 1,000 in the genre it's actually in, while both Tintin and Asterix crack the top 100 in certain categories.

What this says to me is there's an opportunity here to tap this section of the physical and virtual bookstores and repackage Kirby's work so that its primary audience is a new, young audience, the way it was meant to be. Print them in thinner formats with larger dimensions, and you could very well expose a young aspiring artist to the power innate in Kirby's work. Imagine these pages in the paper size of an Asterix or Tintin, around 9 by 11 inches:

Celebrate the art, cut the unit costs by making it thinner, and you'll have around 20 small collections instead of three or five huge ones. You'll also have multiple entrypoints, and this section would be relatively new that it could tap that audience much more easily.

Imagine this scenario: a kid goes to see Thor: Ragnarok this November and tells his mom they want to buy a Thor comic. The mom goes to the TPB/graphic novel section of the bookstore (or Amazon), and is overwhelmed by the options. She ends up buying him either nothing or takes a chance at any of them. The chances of the thing she buys being of high quality are fairly small. However, if the children's section had a carefully curated selection of Thor comics, with specifically assigned entrypoints, then the chances of that mother buying something that would turn their kid into a longtime fan go up higher.

Aside from careful design, branding, and curation of these collections, Marvel also needs to make sure that the remastering is on point. My biggest issue with Marvel's Omnibuses, which for the most part seems to have been fixed by the Epic Collections, is that there seems to be little to no care put in the remastering. To demonstrate, here's a sequence of Odin in a bathtub as it originally appeared in Kirby's comics:

And here's that same sequence, "remastered":

Thinner lines and less considered coloring just remove the life and weight from the drawing, and we need this to be better executed for this plan to work.

Other than that, I'm only using Kirby because he's the greatest and it's his centennial, but successful implementation of this could theoretically be a proof of concept to have similar collections, such as Ditko's Spider-Man, Claremont's X-Men, and more.

Comics is a collectible market. But there's no reason it can't still be open to the masses, not with all this backlog, and all this marketing power.

Happy 100th, King Kirby.

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