Foster, Kirby, & Windsor-Smith: A Celebration of Influences

Foster, Kirby, & Windsor-Smith: A Celebration of Influences
by Mark Lerer
From The Jack Kirby Collector, Volume 10, No. 37, TwoMorrows Publishing, Winter 2003

Influence in the visual arts is a strange phenomenon. It can take the shape of the most superficial kind of imitation all the way to a profound identification of one’s own talents and goals. Jack Kirby’s influence is so overwhelming on the comic book artists that followed him that, it has been suggested, younger comics fans might not even be aware that there were comics before Jack Kirby! Let’s examine the principle influence on Kirby’s life and work, a man whose presence is not detected by simply applying the magnifying glass to either man’s drawings, but one whose career influenced Jack Kirby in the fuller sense of being an artist-storyteller—and powerfully influenced Barry Windsor-Smith, whom I would categorize as one of Kirby’s greatest disciples. His name was Hal Foster, and the jewel in his crown was Prince Valiant.

Some History

Foster occupies a crucial position in the history of comics, as the first illustrator of a newspaper adventure strip. When Edgar Rice Burrough’s Tarzan became the first commercial property to be licensed to the Sunday comics, Foster got the assignment, and he went to work fertilizing virgin territory. Of course, he was not the first man to tell stories with pictures—the narrative pictorial tradition goes back hundreds of years. But he was the first to apply to the newspaper “funnies” the attention of a master of illustration—a major development in the history of comics, inaugurating a new era after the predominance of the comparably primitive early humor strips that had begun with the Yellow Kid. Foster’s Tarzan run, of course, is still available in beautiful volumes, and all the elements of sophisticated figure drawing are there to be admired and, for many artists, imitated. He knew his anatomy very well, understood the need for Tarzan to move and pose with a tense-muscled catlike elegance, vividly characterized the other characters in the cast, understood where to position the “camera” to best display the action, and was faithful to the original concept of the characters. The Foster Tarzan is still highly important when appreciating the men who drew Tarzan after him, particularly those masters Burne Hogarth and Joe Kubert.

Foster’s next contribution to the history of comics took the form of a career move, one that would be echoed, coincidentally or not, in the careers of many great cartoonists to follow. Having made his mark with Tarzan, a property created by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Foster wanted to do a property of his own creation, Prince Valiant. In so doing, Foster, in a way he could not have known, established a pattern for many ambitious comics creators after him. As Foster left Tarzan to pursue Prince Valiant, Jack Kirby left the FF and Thor to do his Fourth World stories, and Barry Windsor-Smith went from Conan to, ultimately, the series in his exquisite BWS: Storyteller anthology. Many other artists have done, or attempted, the same thing. I don’t suggest that either Kirby or Windsor-Smith consciously thought of Hal Foster when they made their moves—but clearly the desire for an accomplished cartoonist to stretch his creativity to encompass the creation of his own ideas was present in Hal Foster well before any other comic book artist went through this experience of self-evaluation and self-direction.

Prince Valiant: The Ingredients

Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant is the crucial paradigm for the adventure comic that Kirby ultimately sought. This is not to slight Alex Raymond, the other great creator of the adventure strip—indeed, bits and pieces of Flash Gordon show up through the history of super-hero comics in ways that are far more than trivial; Jack Kirby assimilated Raymond’s elegant figure drawing into his early style more noticeably than he did Foster’s, in fact. But I’ve identified certain elements of Prince Valiant that make it so important to the history of comics, and in particular to Kirby.

“All societies, all civilizations, have their legends, their myths, and stories,” Jack Kirby was often quoted as saying, and a brief examination shows us that the aspects of the Camelot legend that have made it so appealing are also present in the Norse mythology of Thor, Kirby’s own original mythology of the New Gods, and also, in turn, in Barry Smith’s “Young Gods” series in BWS Storyteller, which Smith introduced with “Dedicated to the Everlasting Memory of Jack Kirby” on the first page of every story.

The King Arthur legend, like Thor, New Gods, and “Young Gods” presents a pantheon of characters, each with his own special story, personality, look, and exceptional abilities. Prince Valiant was the first such body of lore in the comics pages, and Foster executed it with such skill and love that it seemed as if the knights of Camelot were created with those colorful Sunday pages in mind. Foster did his research and reproduced faithfully the distinctive weaponry, colorful dress, styles (beards were always a distinctive elements of certain kinds of characters in particular), and architecture of medieval England. There are the knights, monstrous ogres, wizards, politicians, magic potions, swordfights, beautiful women of both noble and deceitful character, and, of course, Val himself, the star of the show, who plays against the more exotic characters with the heroic bearing that every reader would love to have himself.

Colorful costumes and fascinating weaponry—and, on the female characters, hair-styles—are particularly important. Weaponry represents the extent of the technology of the period, and both weaponry and costume are key features for identifying the characters immediately and visually; without reading a word of text, a young reader can get the whole sense of a character as “the guy with the sword,” “the guy with the axe,” or “the fat guy in the red robes.” The magnificent blues of the belted tunics, the red capes, green tunics with yellow trim and pastel gowns on the women have a strong similarity, in fact, to those of Michelangelo’s colorful garb on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (which, not coincidentally, people have referred to as the “world’s grandest comics strip.”) The characters in Prince Valiant wear the predecessors of the superhero costume—and Kirby’s complex and imaginative costumes, like Foster’s, always made full use of the whole range of tassels, shirts, belts, buckles, collars, helmets, boots, and decorative motifs. One of the key lessons Kirby undoubtedly learned from Foster was that rich, detailed costuming is as important to a characterization as facial expression. Foster based his depictions on careful historical research; Kirby, having learned what he could from Foster, from Viking design, and from many other sources over his life, went wild and concocted his characters’ costuming from his imagination. But each man excelled at rendering in exquisite detail every character’s accoutrements, so valuable to the validity of each character.

The crowded battle scenes of Prince Valiant also stand as a precedent to the crowded battle scenes of so many Kirby stories. The most important difference between how Kirby and Foster choreograph battle scenes is compositional. Here, too, is where Kirby departs from Foster and assimilates his influence, rather than just imitating his style. Foster, for all of his drama, kept his drawings very much on the horizontal and vertical. Kirby, of course, in the development of what would become the cornerstone of the Marvel style, threw away the straight up-and-downs in favor of lines of action that magnified the drama a hundredfold. (“That’s Marvel!” Stan Lee would write in How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way.) Foster’s battle scenes, even when hundreds of soldiers are battling and axes are being thrown and swords drawn, look positively civilized when compared to Kirby’s intense close-ups, exaggerated perspective, and dramatic scale. Perhaps here is an instance where Kirby is not as much like Hal Foster as he is like Alex Raymond—those classic Flash Gordon episodes have all sorts of diagonal and oblique shots of the hero in action, in a way one could call romantic, if not downright cinematic.

Carrying On the Tradition

As I consider Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant to be such an important influence on Jack Kirby, it is hard not to see Jack Kirby as the similarly profound influence on the work and career of Barry Windsor-Smith. Indeed, one can identify a “grandfather-father-son” (or perhaps “father-son-grandson”) relationship among the three artists. The “Young Gods” series, in the late BWS: Storyteller published by Dark Horse, is an out-and-out tribute to the work of Jack Kirby and, as I mentioned before, Windsor-Smith proudly and humbly says so on each splash page, but in many ways it is the most genuinely personal and individual of all of his comic book work.

For, the influence on Windsor-Smith is more than a superficial imitation of Jack Kirby’s style—it is a far deeper and more significant part of what makes Windsor-Smith the artist that he is. When Smith began his career in American comics, he pretty much did imitate Kirby, and his first story for Marvel in X-Men #53 was little more than a recitation of Kirbyesque figures, down to the fictional muscles. It was not a great piece of work, but fortunately, the powers at Marvel recognized his talent, and knew that there are many times when an exceptional creator’s first work is nowhere nearly as good as what follows. The young Englishman developed dramatically in stories he drew for Avengers and Daredevil. When Smith found his mature style with Conan, his work no longer looked like Jack Kirby’s, but it did have the weight, the drama, and the powerful storytelling quality that he had learned from his master.

Just as we saw Jack Kirby’s departure from Hal Foster, we see in Windsor-Smith’s “Young Gods” the more individual and imaginative elements that Windsor-Smith brings to the work, in particular his exotic architecture and settings, costumes, and the wild flora and geography that populate the stories. What’s particularly charming is that the aspects in which Windsor-Smith’s work differ most dramatically from Jack Kirby’s—for instance, his rendering style and the general “template” of his characters’ faces—reveal the powerful influence of Windsor-Smith’s stylistic “grandpa,” Hal Foster himself. There are moments indeed where some of the women in the strip are dead ringers for Val’s wife, Aleta—and Windsor-Smith carries it off with such natural grace that it makes a reader smile the way a parent may smile when he sees his children resembling their grandparents. And so we’ve come full circle. From Hal Foster to Jack Kirby to Barry Windsor-Smith, we see three stages in the evolution of a comic strip genre. Whether with knights or Norsemen, new gods or young, the thread that works its way through the tradition sustained by these exceptional comic artists is one that has given me a great deal of joy and inspiration. I hope it will continue.