I’ve been reading that Showcase collection of 1950s Challengers of the Unknown comics by Jack Kirby intermittently over the past months. The stories are pretty dreary — although large parts of them can probably be ascribed to him, Kirby was still working with a pretty pedestrian writer in Dave Wood — but the art is just fantastic!

Kirby, of course, is best known and appreciated for the stuff that came after — the sixties development towards greater stylisation and his incredible flights of fancy — as well as his earlier, earthier, gutsy work with Joe Simon. His fifties work, not the least that on The Challengers, can in many ways be seen as a period of transition. His drawing chops have improved and he is starting to explore the blocky, geometric shapes that would eventually come to distinguish his style. But at the same time, he is sticking to a kind of naturalism that he would later jettison in favour of an almost sui generis interpretive substitution of reality for his own inventions.

Kirby’s fifties work is some of the most detailed of his career, and this cannot just be ascribed to the at times almost overpowering, but immensely attractive and justly celebrated inking of Wally Wood, since even the strips inked by others (Bruno Premiani, Marvin Stein, George Klein, as well as a few, famously, by his wife Roz) are rendered with compelling attention to the world around him — the furniture and interior design, vehicles, weapons, and other mundane staffage of these strips exhibit a wonderful solidity and physical presence, while the many great inventions — of anything from aliens and spacecraft to strange fauna and all kinds of machinery — that would later become such a hallmark of his work retain a connection to their real-life counterparts in contemporary science and the natural world.

Images from Showcase #12 (1958), 11 (1957), & 12 again, words by Dave Wood, art/storytelling by Kirby, inks by Klein, Premiani, and Klein, respectively.