Jack Kirby and Alex Niño: Innovation at DC Comics in 1972In 2014, superheroes dominate America’s comic-book shops and the graphic novel sections of major bookstores. But it wasn’t always this way. In the early 1970s, drugstore and supermarket spinner racks overflowed with an array of genres: adventure, horror, sci-fi, mystery, romance, western, war, and comedy. Like their superhero counterparts, these mass-produced comics frequently regurgitated tired ideas, relying on familiar character types, plots, and art styles. Since publishers needed to crank out dozens of titles per month and meet sales goals, they embraced easily executed — and easily digested — formulas. Yet, we can find artists eager to move past clichés if we search in the right places — which often means exploring stories without caped crusaders. In 1972, the innovative work of Jack Kirby and Alex Niño graced spinner racks and challenged readers of Weird Mystery Tales and Adventure Comics.
The Many Faces of Alex Niño
Alex Niño was one of a host of inventive Philippine artists hired by DC Comics in the early ’70s. In Adventure Comics #425, Niño, an under-appreciated stylist, makes some highly unusual and compelling artistic choices. He repeatedly — and radically — changes the look of his characters’ faces throughout the story.
The title illustration below features three objects that represent the comic’s central conflict: the helmet of a Spanish Conquistador, the spear of a Caribbean Indian, and the face of the natives’ leader, Fero (who names himself “Captain Fear,” hoping to generate terror in the “white devils” out to enslave him). Niño draws this face in what we could call the story’s ‘baseline style’:
Yet on page two, Fero’s and his father’s faces deviate significantly from this approach. Niño uses an almost pixelated effect, as if enlarging a photo that can’t take being blown up and becomes blocky:
A close-up of the Spanish leader receives a similar, though even more abstract treatment:
The next close-up employs a thick and rounded inking style:
The next face (Fero again):
Stylistically, this face resembles the previous one, with its smooth areas of brushed black ink. But the coloring provides a distinct, statue-like effect. I’m not sure who colored the story — no credit is given — but he or she understands Niño’s technique and selects a different palette for each new face style, a palette that’s distinct from the story’s general approach to coloring characters and settings.
As Fero slays a pirate, Niño employs another cartoony style of distortion. The pirate’s head almost melts as his hair disintegrates and mouth contorts:
Here is the same character’s face — drawn in the baseline style — a few panels earlier:
When Fero christens himself “Captain Fear” in the penultimate panel, Nino designs his face in a way that resembles a picture taken by a thermal imaging device — this look suggests the “white hot” intensity of his rage and echoes the panel’s bolded word “WHITE.” This face
looks like a looser version the statue effect used earlier:
Faces shift style as the characters change emotions.
Here are the two prior faces in the context of the story’s final eight panels:
Niño’s approach to faces throughout “Captain Fear” likely owes a debt to the kinds of distortions that characterize 1960s and ’70s psychedelic art, a style often interested in portraying shifting states of perception and consciousness by evoking the visual experiences of someone on a hallucinogenic drug. There is something trippy about reading a comic whose main characters continually transform in front of your eyes . . .
In humor comics, artists often shift facial styles, using dramatic forms of exaggeration:
In adventure comics, while artists might employ facial distortion, they tend not to move between distinct styles that appear only for a single panel. I can’t think of many artists in any genre who use so many visual strategies within a single piece. Niño’s technique is radical — a fresh way of drawing / seeing.
Perhaps there’s something about the integrity of older mass-produced comics that makes the effect Niño employs — or perhaps the effect it has on readers — distinctly a comics’ one. While his changes are striking, the basic printing and production methods of the 1970s (the way comics had been produced for decades) give a kind of naturalness to something that otherwise might be jarring, especially if used, say, in a movie. The warm, flat colors printed on newsprint ensure that the images don’t jump out at readers in the way they might if printed on the glossy paper of current mainstream comics, which often employ hyperactive, video game-influenced coloring styles.
Like “The Burners!”, “Captain Fear” looked beyond the era’s artistic formulas. Both stories displayed a belief that the human mind, not the superhuman body, offered an inexhaustible source of drama and conflict. The mind’s many faces were fertile terrain for restless comic-book artists like Kirby and Niño.
Weird Mystery Tales #3 (November-December 1972)
Cover Pencil Art and Inks: Nick Cardy
Story and Pencil Art: Jack Kirby
Inks and Letters: Mike Royer
(Reprinted in black and white in DC Comic’s 2012 Spirit World collection)
“Captain Fear,” Adventure Comics #425 (December 1972-January 1973)
Story: Robert Kanigher
Pencil Art and Inks: Alex Niño
(In Adventure Comics #426 — the second part of “Captain Fear” — Niño draws the story in a single style.)