His Name Is Kane, Part 1

When today's comic book professionals talk about their influences, the chances are that five names will invariably pop up: Jack Kirby, Alex Toth, Carmine Infantino, and today's feature subject, Gil Kane.

Gil Kane was born in Latvia, as Eli Katz, on October 24, 1926. Raised in New York, Kane was attending the School of Industrial Arts when, at age fourteen, he made the decision to become a comic book illustrator. It was a logical direction for someone of Kane's temperament to make; as a youth at school he led a rich fantasy life, running around playing pranks in school by dressing in a hood and cape and emulating the pulp heroes of those days. The young Kane had also discovered the work of comics great Lou Fine, becoming an immediate fan of the Fiction House (Jumbo Comics, Sheena) master of draftsmanship. "His work was dreamy, visionary-- everybody who saw him was captivated," recalls Kane. "It was unreachable, unattainable, but definitely inspirational."

By the time he was sixteen, Kane was already working as a comics freelancer, landing his first job with Bob Montana at the MLJ (Archie) comic house, and then at the art shops of Jack Binder and Bernard Bailey. One of his most significant early jobs was working for Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, where he was required to pencil a twelve page story every week or so. Gil was both inspired and intimidated working with Kirby because of the quality of the artist's work and the speed with which it was produced. "It was in fact defeating because he was so good, so unnaturally good."

Prior to working with Simon and Kirby, Kane had briefly worked for Timely Comics, where he first met an exuberant young man named Stan Lee. A mere few years Kane's senior, the nephew of Martin Goodman was already working as an editor and writing Captain America scripts. Doing the beginner's work of erasing pencils, whiting out inking mistakes, and other production tasks, Kane lacked confidence. "Somehow or other it didn't work out for me. I was the butt of practical jokes because I was the youngest one there, and finally, after a week, I left."

The experience couldn't have too discouraging because after Simon and Kirby had been drafted Kane stuck to his chosen profession, working on a humor feature, "Candy," for Quality Comics, as well as doing backgrounds for a Street and Smith strip. Eventually he was to return to Timely and illustrate other strips; Red Hawk, Vision, and The Young Allies.

In 1944 Kane had also been drafted. After his discharge, he went to work for National Comics (DC), hired by Sheldon Mayer to draw Wildcat, a Justice Society of America hero, and millionaire adventurer The Sandman (not to be confused with the Neil Gaiman creation). Only in his twenties, Kane had honed his skills sufficiently to gain further work and had become an industry workhorse, doing pencils for Avon, Prize, Quality, Fawcett, Hillman, Eastern, and other publishers, sometimes under various pen names like "Al Kame," "Gil Stack," and "Scott Edward."

The super hero genre began to wane as the fifties dawned. During World War II there had been plenty of comic book action fighting the Axis. The Red Menace of the Cold War, though, never seemed to be quite as menacing as Hitler and Hirohito. "Cape and tights" titles dwindled as their readerships sank. Kane easily made the transition to other comic book genres, spending much of his time doing westerns like Hopalong Cassidy, Johnny Thunder, and The Trigger Twins, as well as war, crime, and horror for Atlas Comics.

The post-EC 1950s were a sterile time for comics, to the point where DC became virtually the only game in town, forcing many who had thrived in the field to go into advertising, or other avenues of more practical commercial art. Kane was versatile enough to be able to stick it out, continuing to get work on DC's mystery and science fiction titles. But although able to achieve financial security, the maturing artist began to feel doubts about his own work; "I was still swirling around, still looking for something, still copying." Kane first began to teach himself perspective, and then anatomy, studying the books by anatomy instructor George Bridgeman. "So I got into Bridgeman and that began to solve a lot of problems. Each doorway opened into another room, so ultimately into my late thirties and early forties, rooms were opening up for me. I was at last achieving a kind of professional status I was comfortable with."

Another influence was the artist who did Captain Easy and Wash Tubbs, Roy Crane. "He knew it all, " Kane remarked, "He had it all, and in effect, fascinated all the other artists in this field. When I first started to study him, it was my first concrete move toward learning some sort of understanding of composition."

By 1956 super heroes began to make a comeback at DC. Editor Julius Schwartz first resurrected the Golden Age character The Flash, following with Jack Kirby's The Challengers of The Unknown. Adam Strange, a science-fictional character debuted in Showcase Comics #17, which featured art by Gil Kane.

Kane was given other super hero assignments, first Green Lantern, another Golden Age veteran, in Showcase #22, and then, a few later, The Atom, in Showcase #34. Finally Kane was the lead artist on two regular super hero titles and fast gaining recognition.  Thanks to his Bridgeman studies, his style began to flesh out, gaining conviction and a sense of authoritative style, while his earlier work had been achieved through trial and error. Still, the best was yet to come. We'll deal with that in the next installment, or, to put it in one of comics' hoariest old traditions: To Be Continued.
 

--Steve Stiles