The King and I
Form and Function
By Desmond Reddick
25 September 2008 — After the wild imagery seen in the last installment of The King and I, I thought I'd tone it down and discuss another aspect of Kirby's character design: practicality. Whether it be for simplicity or ease, some of Kirby's character designs are those that don't scorch your retinas! These are dynamic in their simplicity and iconic in their own right. Let's sit back and take a look at the top 10 practical character designs:
10. Challengers of the Unknown
Lots of people know who the Challengers of the Unknown are, but few have actually read their exploits. The precursors of the Fantastic Four, Walter "Prof" Haley, Kyle "Ace" Morgan, Matthew "Red" Ryan and Leslie "Rocky" Davis all survived a plane crash and decided to pursue even more dangerous adventures — in purple jumpsuits.
While the superhero was a popular trope of the time, it had yet to take control of the industry. So in the late 1950s it was still a radical idea to put pulp adventurers in uniform costumes. It worked. Whether Jack created them on his own or with help, he used different body types to portray individuality while tying them together as a team. One of the more influential moves of his long career.
The first of the Challengers of the Unknown influences we'll see here. The great thing about the X-Men's original costumes is that they were a school uniform in a way. Each of the kids had wildly different powers and designs, but, with their classic yellow and blues, they were an imposing strike force.
While the costumes would soon change to make the book look more like The Avengers, the X-Men would occasionally don yellow and blue costumes from time to time. This happened most notably in the early 90s when Jim Lee updated the look. In fact, during this era, some characters' looks were defined by the original costumes: Forge, Banshee and Peter David's X-Factor cast, to name a few. Even today, in a modernized fashion, this look is being used.
One of Kirby's most famous creations at DC Comics, Darkseid is a character so simple in design, yet so effective in impact. Created with both Jack Palance and Richard Nixon in mind, the despot would grow to become the greatest threat the DC Universe had ever seen.
The simple blue and grey color scheme highlights the character's monolithic stature. While Kirby's stories rarely had Darkseid in action — he preferred to plot and manipulate from the comfort of Apokolips — it certainly wasn't a surprise to see him tussle with and beat the best the DCU had to offer. Right now, Grant Morrison is depicting Darkseid as a ruthless human gangster, but we all know the blue and grey will be back before the year is out.
07. The Fly
Like the Challengers, the Fly's debut had him straddling the fence between the Golden and Silver ages. These guys were very much the progenitors of the 60s superhero, and there is no better example than Archie Comics' The Adventures of the Fly.
His costume, a classic yellow and green outfit, had Golden Age attributes (such as goggled eyes and human-sized fly wings) mixed with a very sleek, mod-inspired Silver Age superhero costume. One of my all-time favorites.
The jumpsuit influence of the Challengers is fully realized in "Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD," published in Strange Tales. Influenced by spy movies of the time, it would go on to influence all other spy movies after it. It would be the style defined by Jim Steranko, but it was created by Kirby.
The SHIELD uniform is functional yet sexy (well, not on Dum Dum), and downright fucking cool! It's also remained mostly unchanged since its very first appearance. Its simplicity is a perfect foil to the intricacy of their terrorist enemies, HYDRA. Most kids grow up wanting to be Superman or Spider-Man. I still want to be a SHIELD agent — if only to hang around Contessa Valentina Allegra de la Fontaine in her SHIELD jumpsuit. Yummy!
Up until a few months ago, this would have easily been the most obscure entry on this list. Prior to the most recent few issues of Superman, Atlas only appeared once, in 1st Issue Special #1. It was an awesome way for DC to test the waters. They could debut new characters in a "first issue" of a proposed series, letting fans decide which one they wanted. Granted, Kirby's two installments never took off, but they provided us with one of the most iconic-looking characters in comic book history.
In one issue, this fantasy epic built Atlas up as the most badassiest of badasses. Kind of like a Namor for the DC Universe, this Conan-type may or may not be the Atlas from Greek myth. His simple look is similar to Namor's as well: red loincloth with a golden belt, and an odd but still badass red hood. There is a decidedly Lightray-ish head dressing underneath the hood. Complete with his street-fighting gloves and his penchant for throwing guys around, Atlas is sure to make an impact in the current DC Universe, 33 years after his first and only previous appearance.
04. The Fantastic Four
The numbering of this entry is purely coincidence. This is the ultimate amalgamation of the Challengers of the Unknown, the X-Men and SHIELD. Granted, it predates two of those franchises and is unabashedly a rip-off of the other. I'm speaking of its impact. The pulp adventure of the Challengers, mixed with the team unity between individuals of the X-Men and the sleek coolness of SHIELD.
It too has changed very little in the past 45 years. Well, except for that period in the 90s where everyone was wearing brown coats, even Sue Storm, whose costume at the time was a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition cover waiting to happen; why dress like Vampirella if it's cold enough to wear a coat? While the FF may not be as recognizable as Superman, Batman or Spidey, their uniforms are just as iconic.
They each have their own little quirks (and yes, Thing wore a full costume and helmet at one point) and they are the most functional superhero costumes thanks to Reed's invention of unstable molecules. Absolute classic.
03. Red Skull
I remember an interview with Stephen King where he talked about Greg Stillson (from Dead Zone). He wanted there to be no doubt as to who the villain of the story was, so he had Greg kick a dog to death a few pages into the novel. That's the kind of vibe you get from ol' Johann Schmidt. In a modern world, even a freak the likes of Red Skull could be a hero, until you see the swastika armband.
He is the epitome of villainy. Not the wimpy villains we can relate to. The "I'm gonna kill you so that I can run the fucking world into the ground"-type villain. And, unlike a lot of villains who have been tinkered with to make them more sinister and modern, Skull is still trying to remake the world in his image, only this time he's using anarchy now that the Cosmic Cube is unavailable.
02. Captain America
"We never saw him coming" is not what the enemies of Captain America could ever say. Captain America's costume works as a weapon of psychological warfare far better than even the Punisher or Batman's. When he charges, he does so head-on not to create fear like the aforementioned antiheroes, but to inspire those who follow him. Even though he was the least powerful member, he would always be the first to lead the Avengers into battle. His very look inspires awe. As a Canadian, I am even blown away. There is no other costume that tells you so much about the character. Plus, there are little wings on his head!
It isn't the simplest, but it has remained relatively unchanged since his first appearance almost 70 years ago. That means there are people reading this whose grandparents aren't as old as Captain America. He is, to me, the most enduring of superhero icons.
So sleek, so simple. This living embodiment of the 1960s still manages to capture our imagination today. People who aren't even comic fans know all about the Silver Surfer. For such a relatively obscure character, that's quite a feat.
Created as a herald for the world-devouring Galactus (because Kirby was tired of drawing spaceships), Surfer is one of the most tragic characters from a comic universe full of tragic characters. Norrin Radd sacrificed himself to save his planet, and was then cursed to be the death knell for an infinite number of planets. That is, until he fought back. This did nothing but get him exiled to Earth. His nobility is entrenched in his character right down to his design. I often think that this was the character Kirby was born to create.
Fewer comic book characters have permeated our culture as much as the Surfer has. Appearing in cartoons, films (both in posters, dialog and as a character), songs, album covers, video games, stamps and illegal quarters to name a few! He comes out of the majesty of the 50s, the cosmic awareness of the 60s, the rebellion of the 70s and continues to capture a piece of our imagination to this day.
To me, there is no doubt that this is Kirby's single most powerful creation.
Disagree with my choices? Notice any glaring omissions? Want to shower me with praise and photos of Scarlett Johansson in a tight-fitting SHIELD outfit? Email The King and I at Kirby@dreadmedia.net. [Editor's Note: Just like last time, make sure to carbon copy those photos to email@example.com.]