Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics

Captain America. The X-Men. Hulk. Iron Man. The Avengers. The New Gods. Black Panther. These are only a few of the hundreds of characters that Jack Kirby either created or co-created. They are household names and properties that have generated billions (trillions?) of dollars for the corporations that control them. But he received close to none of such profits. In terms of industry folks, most artists and creators revere Kirby as one of the all-time greats, but non-comics people tend to not know who he was and attribute all of his creations to his frequent collaborator Stan Lee. Finally here, he is given a full biography, in graphic novel form.

Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics tells his whole life story, from his early days as a hard-scrabble New Yorker to his becoming an artist and taking part in the formative years of the comic book industry. He was friends/associates with many of the people who shaped American comics, like Bob Kane, Will Eisner, and Joe Simon. He bounced around several companies, enlisted and served in the Army during World War II, co-invented the genre of Romance Comics, co-created the Marvel Universe as we know it, and went on later in life to work in animation. His was an eventful life, and this book captures it in a mostly realistic, painterly style that evokes the spirit of Golden Age comics as well as documentaries. Also, the paper itself is colored to resemble yellowed newsprint, the material used to display Kirby's works.
I have to say that this book moves at breakneck speed, and it is packed full of his accomplishments. There is a part of me that wanted there to be more breaks, perhaps in the form of chapters or parts, but I also feel that the sort of compressed storytelling at play here is more emblematic of Kirby's work. So the medium very well matches its subject, though I also made myself pause at times to catch my breath and take in the story.

I also appreciated the way the book used Kirby as the primary narrator (using various interviews and articles as reference points) with occasional shifts of POV to his wife Roz and collaborator Stan Lee. I'd say it does a good job at capturing the spirit and voice of the man, and I liked how it treated him in very practical terms, with his speaking to the need to be productive and work not only in terms of expressing himself but also to put food on the table and support his growing family. Certainly Kirby was an impressive creator, but this books demystifies some of the origins of his most famous works, showing how he cobbled together his experiences, learning, and media consumption in spinning his fantastic stories and amazing characters. Kirby is impressively human.

This book also touches on the more controversial aspects of Kirby's life, namely how he was cheated out of his due as a creator and spent much of his life battling in vain to retain control of his stories, characters, and artwork. Surely there is lots of blame to assign for his treatment, and I felt this book captured well the conditions that led to it. It also has lots of source material behind it to help flesh out the proceedings well.

In seeing people's responses to this book online, the most glaring aspect people have latched onto is the depiction of Kirby himself, which you can see from the cover image. While everyone else is realistically drawn, Kirby is rendered in a cartoonish way, with a huge head and big eyes. I think this choice does two things: it draws attention to him in every way as an otherworldly presence, and it makes it clear who he is in every instance, making for smoother storytelling. Others have noted how this choice is related to how another comics titan Osamu Tezuka (the "God of Manga") drew himself in his own works, and I feel that there is a similar semiotic move made here, a marker of a similarly legendary figure. In reading the book, I have to say that I did not find the choice jarring in the least, and I was quickly drawn into the narrative flow of the story. Even though I was very familiar with many aspects of his life, I still found this book fresh and vibrant. And I feel it is extremely important now, especially as an introduction to those who are unaware of just how impactful Kirby's life was.

This book was created by long-time Jack Kirby fan Tom Scioli. His own works clearly owe debts to Kirby in terms of style, particularly his series Gødland and American Barbarian, not to mention his recent Fantastic Four: Grand Design limited series. He has also drawn a number of licensed properties, including Transformers Vs. G.I. Joe. Scioli speaks about his work on this book in this interview. For more about his entire career, check out this interview with TCJ.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have sung its praises. In a starred review Publishers Weekly called it "a must-read for Kirby fans, and beyond—it captures the mythos of the of the 20th century comic industry’s golden age."  Kirkus Reviews summed it up as "a fast-paced celebration of an underheralded legend within the comic-book industry." Steven Thompson wrote, "The public deserves to know Kirby’s story and Tom Scioli, the obsessive Kirby fan/writer/artist, tells it here in a way I can’t help but think the King himself would’ve liked, and in the medium Jack Kirby loved."

Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics was published by Ten Speed Press, and they offer a preview and more here.
Kirby's influence extends way beyond comics.

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