Features and Columns · TV

‘What If…?’ Celebrates the Iconic Artistic Flourish Known as Kirby Krackle

For diehard Marvel fans, spotting it is like spotting a Stan Lee cameo.
What If Episode Kirby Krackle
Marvel Studios
By  · Published on September 29th, 2021

Marvel Explained is our ongoing series where we delve into the latest Marvel shows, movies, trailers, and news stories to divine the franchise’s future. This entry explores What If…? Episode 8 and how the studio masterfully replicated Kirby Krackle to honor its greatest comics creator. Yes, prepare for SPOILERS.

The Multiverse is in trouble. And as predicted last week, Uatu, The Watcher (Jeffrey Wright), can no longer sit behind his curtain wringing his pearls. He’s got to act. He needs the Avengers. But the first batch of heroes he’ll assemble to defend the Multiverse from an Infinity-powered Ultron (Ross Marquand) won’t be our live-action crusaders.

Instead, The Watcher seeks assistance from the evil Doctor Strange who destroyed his own reality, and from there, the cosmic peeper will collect Captain Carter, Party Thor, Ant-Man’s severed head, and more weirdo doppelgangers.

What If…? Episode 8 (“What If… Ultron Won?“) wants you to know that everything you love is in peril. If these cartoon characters don’t succeed in their mission, then your beloved Eternals and Spider-Man: No Way Home may not happen. Our Peter Parker’s life is once again left in the hands of others. “I don’t feel so good, Mr. Stark.”

At the center of all this cataclysm is an artistic flourish that ignites uncontrollable glee from long-time comic book readers: Kirby Krackle. You can see it in the header image above. Emanating from the suped-up Watcher are bands of light, outlined with these paradoxically bright black baubles. Those dark orbs are a signature, a design element originally generated by Marvel Comics’ most prolific creator, Jack Kirby.

The Origins of Kirby Krackle

Kirby Krackle Ultron

What is Kirby Krackle? These unique dots first appeared in Jack Kirby’s artwork in the 1940s, but after the launch of The Fantastic Four in the 1960s, they became a reoccurring and hotly anticipated effect. Kirby needed a shorthand that would differentiate the various power levels in a universe with seemingly more gods than men. How do you make the Hulk quiver? What would send shivers down the spine of Earth’s smartest man, Reed Richards? The answer is Kirby Krackle.

In Fantastic Four #48, when the Silver Surfer descended from space with a warning — Galactus, the world devourer is coming — the planet’s mightiest heroes took notice because this strange creature wielded the Power Cosmic. The energy that radiated from this sci-fi traveler and other similar star-deities signified a catastrophic potency. And as a reader, when you saw Kirby Krackle, you instantly knew the threat level was high. Anyone featuring a halo of black, blobby dots was not to be messed with.

Kirby Krackle is not new to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. You’ll spot these dots in the films Guardians of the Galaxy, Thor: Ragnarok, and Avengers: Infinity War if you go back through the franchise. The Marvel Studios crew are no different than the other thousands of artists who came after Kirby. The cosmic Krackle is a staple not just throughout Marvel comics but all comics. Everyone wants to pay homage to King Jack, achieving veneration through duplication.

However, the live-action films don’t really stop and smell the Krackle. What If…? Episode 8, on the other hand, slams the breaks and has itself a Kirby Krackle dance party, or better yet, a punch party. When Ultron claims all six Infinity Stones from a rather stunned Thanos, the AI gains an unprecedented level of perception. Suddenly, he can see The Watcher in the shadows beyond time and space.

Replicating the Krackle in the MCU

Kirby Krackle

Ultron and Uatu slam into each other. As the two titans trade blows, shattering through dimensional barriers, hopping from one reality to the next, Kirby Krackle erupts around them. The space where their fists meet fills with atomic devastation. We are watching gods battle, don’t stare directly into the sun.

When we spoke to What If…?‘s animation supervisor Stephan Franck about stretching MCU design into a cartoon arena, he expressed how important it was for him to match Jack Kirby’s artistic bravado. And the Kirby Krackle was an element that his team spent hours trying to perfect.

“That’s a thing that a lot of different artists have reinterpreted in their own way,” he explains. “That’s a small detail, but that’s something that a lot of effort and, no pun intended, energy has gone into. With our version of this Krackle, we wanted to do a hundred percent justice to how you perceive it in the comics, but have it still work within animation, having it move onscreen and stuff like that.”

Kirby Krackle on the page is an entirely different animal than Kirby Krackle chained to motion. As you see in What If…? Episode 8, the Krackle maintains its flat, negative space while circling three-dimensional combatants. Franck had access to the MCU movie archives and built off what other special effects technicians accomplished in the live-action films. Although, he found himself returning to the Jack Kirby originals over and over again.

“The comic books are the DNA of these characters,” he says. “The power and the excitement, and the bigger life-ness of all this stuff comes from them. It’s the Kirby of it all, the John Buscema of it all. Then that collides with our love of cinema.”

What’s so important about Kirby Krackle?

What If Episode Ultron Eat

When most people think Marvel Comics, they probably think Stan Lee. Mr. Excelsior outlived his partner, Jack, and in doing so, he found his way into an endless stream of cameos that cemented him as the face of Marvel. While Kirby’s name can be found in the credits as co-creator to all these magical and impossibly popular characters, he was denied the same level of adulation. And Lee, as the one-time Marvel publisher and full-time spokesman, positioned himself as an indispensable creative force while the much meeker artist accepted his fate as Marvel’s forever number two.

Who deserves more credit for Marvel’s creation? Stan Lee had some ideas. He certainly filled in a lot of word balloons and captions, and his preternatural talent for showmanship pushed the company into popular consciousness. Jack Kirby pulled the designs from his imagination, and more often than not, he created the plots of these comics through his sequential paneling. He certainly deserves a boost of cinematic justice.

The Stan Lee vs. Jack Kirby debate will most likely never end. Too many fans have chosen their sides, and we tend not to cross lines once established. We like being right, and we love being indignant.

Spotting Kirby Krackle is like spotting a Stan Lee cameo. We all want to be Leonardo DiCaprio in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood — “Oh, there he is! I see him!” We want to be in the know; we want to be part of the cool club. With Stan Lee’s passing, finding that sensation theatrically is difficult, but not impossible. The Kirby Krackle is the next evolutionary stage for this particular hunt. You are now The Watcher. Keep those eyes peeled for those radically cosmic dots.

What If…? Episode 8 is now streaming on Disney+.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)