Many would find that question laughable, but we have to ask ourselves: how will the work of someone like Jack Kirby be perceived by audiences 100s of years from now? Is it possible that in the future, sequential art will be considered a legitimate form of literature worthy of serious scholarly study, and an artist like Kirby may one day be considered the Shakespeare of comics?
First of all, I think the term "literature" is loaded, many consider the concept pretentious, and in some scientific and academic circles, literary studies are looked down upon. But since that is the term most commonly used by the average person to describe writings such as poetry, novels, history, biography, and essays -- where expression and form in connection with ideas of permanent and universal interest are explored -- I think "literature" is the term we should use.
I think the emerging field of visual rhetoric gives us the best approach towards analyzing a comic book: by exploring how word and image work together to effectively convey a specific message to a specific audience, a researcher can systematically examine a piece of comic art in the same way a student of prose fiction can study a novel. I think there are three major ways to approach a comic book as a piece of literature, if the focus is on the synthesis of image & text:
Category # 1: Image as more important than text.
Category # 2: Image/text being equal.
Category # 3: Text more important than image.
Obviously, you will see various combinations of those categories at work sometimes on a single page, and any type of categorization can be debated endlessly, but I make these three distinctions because not every comic book (or individual comic book page) has the same goals or the same audience.
For example, a romance comic book tends to fall into Category # 3: usually the stories are text-driven -- many times you are looking at a sequence of talking heads and prose is the main tool the storyteller uses to give the reader information.
An action/adventure story falls into category #1: the visuals tend to carry the story -- if a character jumps through a window, the reader can plainly see this, so the text becomes secondary.
Category # 2 would be an ideal 50/50 synthesis of image/text, a perfect marriage of words and pictures. Unfortunately, perfect marriages are hard to come by, so I think it's important to realize there are an infinite number of approaches towards various sequential storytelling genres.
Panel 1: Kalibak: "POWER! POWER! THIS AND MORE! --- GIVEN KALIBAK BY AN ALLY! --- EVEN AS WE BATTLE!" Sound effect: WHAM!
Panel 2: Kalibak: "SEE HOW YOUR BONES WITHSTAND THAT, ORION! HAHAHAH!" Sound effect: BAM!
Panel 3: Caption: ORION IS STRUCK BY A SHOCK-BOLT SO DEVASTATING THAT IT SHAKES HIM INTO IMMOBILITY! Kalibak: YOU SURVIVED THAT, BUT NOT TOO WELL! PERHAPS AN ADDED TAP WILL DO THE JOB! Orion: "IT WON'T HELP YOU, KALIBAK! I'LL --- I'LL ---"
Panel 4: Kalibak: "YOU'LL DO WHAT!? YOU'RE DONE FOR, NEW GENESIS DOG! Sound effect: WHAP!
Panel 5: "YOU'LL NEVER RISE AGAIN WHEN I BURY YOU UNDER TONS OF RUBBLE!" Sound effect: KARAACK!
(end of page)
We can see from this page a few eccentricities of Jack's prose style: Jack uses a lot of exclamation points, and multiple dashes to make his text look visually dynamic; he has his characters laugh maniacally at times (hahahah!), and many times they stutter and stammer when in trouble (I'll--- I'll---); plus like much action/adventure comic book text, frequently the captions and characters state the obvious, and as in a real fight, the shouting of the combatants tends to be far from profound.
Because of emerging technologies like the internet and handheld visual communication devices, we might be able to learn a lot by studying how masters of sequential art successfully convey information to their readers. We may be able to use some of these techniques perfected by comics artists like Jack Kirby if we want to write & draw our own comics, or if we want to efficiently use text & images to communicate concepts to our viewers in the evolving digital age.
Page 13, panel 1.
Kirby Historian Stan Taylor had this to say about the literary merits of Kirby's work:
"Comic writing is a collection of skills, from the drawing to the dialogue and the text exposition. Very rarely is anyone good at all facets. Obviously Kirby excelled in the art department, the breakdown and pacing of the story and the powerful presentation. Kirby also excelled at the exposition aspect. His opening introductions and his narrative fill-ins were excellent -- provocative, intriguing, powerful, poetic and most of all thematically concise."
"From The Pact: In the beginning (a great Biblical allusion) The New Gods were formless in image and aimless in deed (continuing the Biblical allusion) On each of their two new worlds their races had sprung from a survivor of the old! The living atoms of Balduur gave nobility and strength to one (nice mythological continuity and description in just a few words) and the shadow planet was saturated with the cunning and evil which was once a sorceress!! (fairly evocative- would have preferred he named the sorceress) For an age these new Gods pursued their own destinies -- until the time of the great clash!! It would start on New genesis with these two Izaya the inheritor and his wife Avia and happiness the first sign of the coming tragedy in an imperfect state!!!"
"Just an excellent introduction and back-history in just a few sentences. Full of detail and portent. Dramatic yet not over the top."