Monday, May 14, 2012

Jack Kirby's interpertation of Spider-Man

Since my post on the cover to Avengers # 11 received its share of interest I thought I'd follow up with a look at how Jack Kirby drew Spider-Man, as witnessed on a number of early Marvel covers. Kirby did not easily adapt to drawing Spider-Man; Steve Ditko's costume design was unique, with its webbing pattern and full face mask - and Kirby rarely got the details right. Some of those errors even appeared uncorrected on covers.

Strange Tales Annual # 1, 1963. Kirby pencils; Sol Brodsky inks?; Artie Simek lettering; Stan Goldberg colors. 

I started out with the above cover since I noticed the circular webbing motif in the background is similar to the design on Avengers # 11. Stan Lee often designed covers with the artists, so this may be an instance where he decided to use the same idea on the Avengers cover a year or so later. As we can see, there are a number of instances where Kirby differentiated from Ditko in his interpretation of Spider-Man. Spidey's webbing is drawn in the standard manner, notably on the belt and feet; the left foot in particular has lines that are completely wrong. The boots are smaller than Ditko's version and the spider on the chest is noticeably absent. Kirby does include the underarm webbing and presents an overall acceptable rendition, although devoid of the unique characteristics Ditko brought to the character.

Ditko's original cover to Amazing Spider-Man # 10 was rejected, probably by editor Stan Lee, although publisher Martin Goodman may have made the call. I would speculate that perhaps the Big Man being positioned in the foreground was thought to be too prominent, with Spider-Man a smaller figure. Also the previous cover had Spider-Man in a defeated position and it may have been thought to look too similar. The unpublished cover would surface on various foreign reprints and Marvel eventually showcased it in Marvel Tales and other publications. The above image is from the back cover of The Official Marvel Index to the Amazing Spider-Man # 2, May 1985.       


The published cover to Amazing Spider-Man # 10, March 1964. Ditko-drawn Enforcers; Kirby pencils (and possible inks) on Spider-Man; Artie Simek lettering; Stan Goldberg colors. 

Ditko's second take on the cover was also partially rejected. This Kirby drawing of Spider-Man which appeared a few months after the Strange Tales Annual, is interesting, since it has Spidey in a side view. On the published cover Ditko's Enforcers remain, closing in on a Jack Kirby Spider-Man. You'll notice that Kirby's Spidey face mask is flat, with no definition of a nose. Ditko's S-M mask is more realistically rendered and outlines the facial structure underneath. Kirby remembers to draw the spider on the chest here (unless someone else added it) but makes the ankles very thin, and the webbing on the glove pointing to the Enforcers has lines going all the way to the fingers. The glove holding the webbing has lines drawn in the correct manner, so it may be that whatever Ditko originally drew was finished by Kirby from that point. Thus far, Ditko's S-M figure has not surfaced, and remains a mystery.

A close-up of the corrected hand. You can see a difference in the more fluid line on the fingers. 

Ditko's Spidey - close-up from the cover to Amazing Spider-Man # 21, Feb 1965.

I thought it would be interesting to compare a Ditko Spider-Man figure/pose with Kirby's. As mentioned, Ditko's mask looks like it has a nose whenever there is a side view. Ditko's musculature is more realistic, and his webbing design is fluid. His Spider-Man looks thinner and younger, while Kirby's is bulky and stiff. There is quite a difference between the two interpretations.


Tales To Astonish # 57, July 1964. Kirby pencils; Sol Brodsky inks; Sam Rosen letters; Stan Goldberg colors. 

On the cover to Astonish Spidey is swinging through the air on his web, which looks more like a net or rope than Ditko's slinkier version. In every drawing, including the interior stories Kirby penciled, Spidey never shoots his webbing with his index fingers like Ditko's; Kirby has the hero making a fist instead. Once again, the webbing design on Spidey's costume is off-kilter, looking like a series of U's on his arm (and it covers his entire arm). The spider design on his back is also missing. 

Kirby's Dr. Strange image from the cover of Strange Tales # 126, November 1964, undoubtedly based on Ditko's interior story pages. Inks by the great Chic Stone; Sam Rosen lettering; Stan Goldberg colors.  

Noting the differences between Kirby and Ditko's versions of Spider-Man is in no way meant to denigrate Kirby - only to illustrate how diametrically opposed they were stylistically. Ditko, for instance, had a very hard time drawing the Thing; his rocky brick-like exterior appeared to confuse Ditko's design sensibilities . Nevertheless, there were occasions where both men were able to do acceptable work on each other's characters. I always thought Ditko did a fine job on the Human Torch, while Kirby's Dr. Strange cover vignettes in Strange Tales (which were often based on a Ditko interior story/scene) and guest appearances, while not perfect costume-wise, had a charm of their own. The individual imprints of Kirby and Ditko are unmistakable; a testament to their artistry and a constant source of delight and fascination.         



Kid said...

Although Jack sometimes drew an acceptable Spider-Man, I don't think the character would've been the success he was if Jack had drawn him from the beginning. Great as he was, Jack had his artistic limitations. Stan Lee was smart enough to know what they were. Perhaps Jack's lesser Spidey attempts were down to the speed at which he drew...maybe if he'd familiarised himself with the costume more he'd have had better success. Great post as usual.

Nick Caputo said...


I think Spider-Man was so much Ditko's that it was hard for most artists to wrap themselves around the character. Until John Romita came around there was no other artist at Marvel that I can think of who would have been able to do an acceptable Spider-Man.

Ted Ignacio said...

Yeeesh. That Strange Tales annual cover by Kirby is painful to look at.

Fred W. Hill said...

That cover to Amazing Spider-Man #10 is painful too. Ditko's original cover, which was rejected, was far superior. While Kirby & Ditko successfully switched out on the Hulk, I don't think Ditko would have done that well on the FF, Thor or Cap, while Kirby would have been terrible on Spidey & Dr. Strange.

Nick Caputo said...

Hi Fred,

I disagree about Ditko's original cover. It was too cluttered and awkward. The mixed cover of Ditko and Kirby isn't outstanding, but it is clearer. Ditko did a decent Cap story in the 1990's inked by Terry Austin.

I agree with you on Ditko's version of Thor. He would never have been able to bring that sense of majesty and epic drama that Kirby was exceptional at.

Comicsfan said...

It's certainly an eye-opener to come across Marvel characters that Kirby's style wasn't suitable for. It seems to be the consensus in whatever forum I come across that Spider-Man is one of those characters, and I agree. Even in Fantastic Four #73, which should have put Kirby's best foot forward on Spider-Man if anything could (particularly with Sinnott's inking), Spidey seems a little stiff. Daredevil fares much better in action in that issue (though I've never really had a problem with Kirby's rendition of DD).

Nick Caputo said...


FF 73 also had some corrections on Spider-Man by Romita. Kirby just couldn't "get" Spider-Man, although there were a few times he did an acceptable job. Two instances were on a Marvelmania cover and the original Spider-Man poster for MarvelMania International, although the posted that was published and sold was drawn by Romita, based on Kirby's original.

thetrellan said...

Looking at these, I suspect Kirby simply didn't like Ditko's design. He probably knew what was expected, but thought it ridiculously busy. Even Ditko didn't have set rules for how the webbing should be oriented, or how many strands should go on the mask. I remember reading through the series and feeling great relief when I finally got to the Romita era. Romita finally established plain rules for the web design, and it looked much better.

Kirby, on the other hand, had a habit of taking shortcuts. His Falcon was often drawn with a simple triangle in place of the usual beak design, and his pencils for Jimmy Olsen show a Superman with one diagonal slash instead of the usualy S shield. But that single slash on the shield was interesting, and something like it was eventually used by Alex Ross on Kingdom Come. Jack knew the important thing was the overall impact of the image, and in this he never disappointed.

The thing to remember is that Ditko's design left too much room for interpretation, and that he himself didn't always interpret it the same. In fact every time it looked like the man was progressing artistically, he would return to form, having learned seemingly little. I hated that about him.

Kirby, by contrast, grew by leaps and bounds in the same period. If you ask me, he'd have made a fine Spider-Man artist, and ultimately would have established rules similar to Romita's much earlier had it been up to him.

thetrellan said...

It's also important to remember that Jack had a fluid way of approaching design that evolved over time. In the first issue of Fantastic Four, no 2 drawings of the Thing looked the same, and he continued to change his approach to the character until some time in book's 40s, when he finally had the look he wanted.

Something similar would have happened with Spider-Man under Kirby. But I'm glad he wasn't on the book. His style and plots are too grandiose for a complex little guy like Peter, and it would have taken Jack away from either Thor or the FF, and either situation would be unacceptable.

Nick Caputo said...


I agree that Kirby had a way of taking shortcuts and many of those worked out splendidly. His changes on the Falcon's costume were fine to my eye, even if they were often corrected in the bullpen (ie his boots). Having said that, though, I still see Ditko's Spider-Man costume as being very individualistic and a wonderful design. It is true that he didn't always interpret it in exactly the same way each time, it was a strong enough visual to work perfectly. Romita did simplify and make the costume consistent, true, and I enjoyed his version, but it was watered-down from the Ditko's.

Kirby and Ditko had very different ways of telling stories and designing costumes and characters, but I enjoy the differences between the two; it makes them unique creators.

Ted Miller said...

If Sean Howe is to be believed, more than a little of Spider-Man's greatness is owed to Ditko's writing. Without him, Peter Parker just wouldn't be the neurotic wall crawler- both figuratively and literally- we know and love today. Although he resented being asked to do a share of the plotting, in the end I think that was where his true talent could be found.

But there's no denying facts. No one could draw a Doctor Strange story like Ditko. His creations are some of the greatest in comics. When I see Ditko's influence, it's almost always in the art of talents I admire and greatly respect. You can't say that about Kirby, either Buscema, or Kane. It's rare.

So even if I have trouble appreciating it, there clearly is something there. And it's solid gold.

Ted Miller said...

BTW, just so you know, this is still thetrellan. Didn't realize I was double-registered on this site.

Nick Caputo said...


If you've read any of my Ditko-related posts you know how much I value Ditko's contributions to Spider-Man (and the world of comic books). I don't think Ditko resented plotting, it was more the lack of communication between him and Lee that occurred around # 25. Without that ability to collaborate and working through a third part (Sol Brodsky) it was a frustrating experience that couldn't be sustained. Nevertheless, his years working with Lee at Marvel are indeed special.

Ted Miller said...

If you read Howe's book, you probably know I wasn't guessing. Howe did say that Ditko resented having to do some of Stan's plotting for him. But Howe also said that Ditko eventually took over writing entirely, so perhaps his beef was really about not having final say- or, like a real human being, he simply changed his mind after a time. I can't tell you how many times I've gone into a project with doubts, only to turn out pleased with the results.

But I stand by my statement that Ditko needed improvement, and that as long as he was doing pencils he went back and forth, showing progress and then reverting to form. Just look at what he did with Kirby on the Hulk's original six-issue run. Aside from the occasional Frank Giacoia project, Ditko was Kirby's best inker. Better than Ayers, Stone, or Colletta (but not Sinnott. Sinnott was just awesome).

As it was later with Al Milgrom, Ditko was better at inking than penciling. And I think that reflected a desire on his part to slow down and focus on details, something which, for whatever reason, he was unable to do with pencil. Which was a shame, because there a kind of magic to his layouts.

Then again, maybe what I was seeing and not liking was a quality fitting for the neurotic nature of Peter Parker. Certainly nothing about his art bothered me in Doctor Strange's stories.

Nick Caputo said...


I've read and enjoyed Howe's book, but I'm referring to Ditko's published comments in his essays on the subject. Ditko clearly grew disenchanted with the "marvel method" after a period of time and did ask for (and receive)plotting credit with # 25, although, others, not Ditko categorized him as writing the strip. He takes credit for plotting and providing Lee with a rough panel breakdown, only as a guide, but not a complete script by any means. Ditko claims Lee stopped talking to him which stopped Ditko from the process of going over every panel/page with Lee to discuss and changes or problems. This lack of collaboration clearly bothered Ditko, which is understandable.

I'd have to disagree with you on Ditko's penciling. I admire his storytelling techniques and expertise in staging, layouts, characterization, body language and so much more. His work is certainly stylized and not to everyone's tastes, but in my view his work is one of a kind. Is there room for improvement? I'd say that's true of everyone, from Kirby on down, but I think Ditko is head and shoulders above many in the field.

Ken said...

I adore early Ditko. But somewhere along later, his artwork appeared to freeze into a caricature of itself, stiff and automatic.
And the same goes for Kirby.
It's as if the passion went out, and they were merely going through the motion.
But icons though they are, I guess they were only human too.

Nick Caputo said...


Both Kirby and Ditko's work changed over the years, becoming more stylized, but I don't think the passion left them, at least not on the work they were enthused about. Kirby's figures became more massive and with age he had problems with perspective, but from time to time he could still dazzle you with an innovative layouts or unique character. Ditko's figures did have a stiffness to them in later years, but he continued to design characters and try new techniques on a page long after many followed the status quo, as seen on many of his independent features. Its all a matter of taste.