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Kirby: King Of Comics

It was great, I thought. Just to see what would happen, I invited all sorts of people to wander in and join the dais so we had Mike Royer, Walt Simonson, Kurt Busiek, Jon Bogdanove, Dan DiDio, Paul Levitz, Jim Chadwick, Marv Wolfman, Brent Anderson, Athena Finger. I can't recall the entire list at the moment but it felt like the stateroom scene in A Night at the Opera up there, plus we had Jack's daughter Lisa and three grandkids in the audience. It was just a whole bunch of interesting, creative people talking about Jack, who was himself an interesting, creative person.

Kirby: King of Comics

Alex Dueben has been a contributor to CBR since 2007, during which time he's written hundreds of articles and interviewed just about everyone in the comics industry. During his tenure he's interviewed many of the living legends of comics, covered comic strips, webcomics, indie comics, book publishers, and breaking news. He's written for The Rumpus, The Paris Review, The Poetry Foundation, The Comics Journal, The Los Angeles Review of Books, SFX, Suicidegirls, and many other publications. He's on twitter at @alexdueben

Jack Kirby, King of Comics. It's a prestigious title certainly befitting for someone who created or co-created some of the most popular comic characters like Captain America, The X-Men, Fantastic Four and many others whose stories are still running in the comics today.

Included are many illustrations collected by the author from the many fans. This includes personal sketches, photos and comics, some drawn under different names. All these from a talented hardworking man who puts in 60-hour weeks.

Kirby is the co-creator (with Stan Lee) of the Marvel Comics characters the Fantastic Four, the Incredible Hulk and X-Men. He's also credited with changing the look of the comics in the 1940s, moving away from visuals that aped what was being done in syndicated newspaper strips.

Evanier got to know Kirby when, as a young man recently out of high school, he took a job working as Kirby's assistant. Since that time Evanier has written for several cartoon series, including Scooby Doo, ABC Weekend Special, CBS Storybreak and Superman: The Animated Series.

Much of the work in comics is done in "shops"--cramped quarters where artists toil at rows of drawing tables. The money isn't good, but it's good for a young man whose neighborhood has yet to see evidence that the Great Depression is ending. It at least beats selling newspapers or several other alternatives he's tried.

So Jacob joins the throng of young artists wandering the streets, all toting large black portfolios crammed with samples. Most of the samples are variations (or outright plagiarisms) of the newspaper strips that had initially moved each to pick up a pencil. Eventually, the young men all seem to wind up working for Victor Fox ... at least for a few weeks, until something better comes along.

Fox is an old-time hustler/financier who's spent years sprinting from one dubious enterprise to another. Most of the early funnybook publishers are like that--hardscrabble entrepreneurs lacking both class and capital. What will turn some of them into multimillionaires--and, ipso facto, into legitimate businessmen--is if they get their fingers on a smash hit. Say, if someone sends them a Superman or if Bob Kane walks in with the beginnings of something called Batman.

Fox nods in understanding, then calls all the other artists in the place to stop working and gather 'round Kurtzberg's drawing table. "Jake here is going to tell you about 'Wow.' Go on, Jake. Tell them about 'Wow!' "

It is, of course, the perfect title for a book about Kirby, but Jack would have wanted everyone to know it was meant with a twinkle. Everything else about him was vested with power and planet-rocking explosions and cosmic energy and changing the world around him, leaving nothing the way he found it.

Making a book like this isn't quite a thankless task, but it sure is one bound to get nitpicked to death from every corner, so I'll start by saying I'm very glad it exists. In hindsight it seems obvious that the past two decades' reintroduction of American comics to its own history via a booming reprint market would lead to examination of said history taking place within the medium itself, but it's a gift to be cherished. I wish there were 50 books about 50 cartoonists like Tom Scioli's general-interest biography of Jack Kirby, that it was only necessary to leave the comics form for prose if one's curiosity about sequential art's past demanded deep digging on obscure figures. This book takes its place next to recent-ish comics biographies about Herge and Winsor McCay, with more in a similar vein feeling inevitable. In a way, finer points about the quality of such books are secondary to the welcome development of comics history finally finding a place within the actual comic store.

It's tough to think of a creator better suited to Kirby as subject than Scioli. The biographer began his career as perhaps history's most painstaking pasticher of his subject's style (no small distinction when America's top comics publisher was quite literally built on people copying Kirby). As his career wore on, though, Scioli has drifted from directly imitating Kirby - at first imperceptibly and by degrees, but the contrast between inspiration and disciple this book provides is striking. Kirby may have dabbled in reminisce of Al Capone and WWII, but it's difficult to imagine him committing to the 200 pages of relatively straight historical drama that Scioli does here. Kirby was so propulsive as an artist that even when he looked back in time, his momentum rocketed his work forward. Scioli's smudgily penciled drafting might have begun as a stylistic evocation of the uninked, mimeographed pages exhibited in venues like The Jack Kirby Collector magazine, but consistent use has sanded some of its jagged edges and sharp corners off, making it ideal for a look back across the years and into the simpler time that Kirby made it his life's work to do a little complicating of. Soft bright colors that stop just within the bounds of the lush before hitting vividity provide a welcome sweetener that pulls the visuals yet further from Kirby's own. Unlike fellow Pittsburghers Jim Rugg and Ed Piskor, Scioli's approach evokes "old comics" as memory rather than sensory experience. From Kirby, Scioli has derived a unique style separate to Kirby, one that chronicles its inspiration's life with ease and vigor.

The visual style is well matched by Scioli's choice to narrate the book in Kirby's voice, a welcome departure from modern nonfiction comics' usual tiresome, personality-less third person omniscient narration. Working from a welter of interviews, Scioli approximates the "as told to" autobiography, stitching together iconic quotes and anecdotes sure to be well known to much of his audience with accurate-enough approximation on his own narrative fill in sections. Brief passages told in the voices of Stan Lee and Kirby's wife Roz are, if anything, even more compelling, and represent a road untaken: given the wealth of quotes and writing many of this book's secondary characters produced on the subject of Kirby, this biography could have provided a more well rounded view of the man as seen by his contemporaries. In this, as elsewhere, one wishes Scioli'd had more time and space. Still, the straight-from-the-horse's-mouth approach gives a winding and detailed narrative momentum, and Scioli does an admirable job of summoning the cadence of one of comics' more quotable figures without ever turning him into a caricature.

Rather bizarrely, the same can't quite be said for the drawing. Scioli's early comics (The Myth of 8-Opus, G0dland) flirt with caricature of Kirby's style, yet can't be reduced to such thanks to Scioli's depth of understanding and his own chops. But his art has evolved, and this book is as visually different from its inspiration's drawing as it is similar. Scioli's handling of his protagonist's appearance, though, is perplexing. Kirby as youth is drawn with the same sturdy, rumpled hand as everything else in the book, blending with the Depression-era background of the tale's opening seamlessly. As the book wears on, however, his features are simplified to a radical degree: his quiffed hairstyle grows mountainous, his eyes expand to dinner plates, and his fireplug stature approaches the Lilliputian. As everyone else in the book ages, Kirby kawaii's, until he resembles nothing so much as a Funko Pop. It doesn't go completely unaddressed - a scene late in the game clarifies that what we're really watching is the evolution of Kirby's eternally youthful self-image (I think?). But in any event, this element rings false in what's otherwise a sober, fact-based treatment of a life, with other such imaginative flourishes restricted to Scioli's many deft copies of Kirby's drawings.

A good deal of the book's narration unspools across those copied panels, another smart choice considering the pivotal moments of Kirby's life mostly took place seated at a drawing board. Scioli never shorts the visual element of comics, with Kirby's rough-and-tumble tenure as a childhood gang member and his legitimately horrific WWII experience given room to breathe. As impressive is the character acting: Scioli nails the human drama of the all-important Lee/Kirby conflict, rendering what's become a legendary clash between two media figures whose notoriety approaches that of the superheroes they created as a traumatic personal rupture between longtime acquaintances. Kirby's even-more-important relationship, his marriage to Roz, is handled with care, neither Hollywoodized for the softies in the crowd nor treated as an inconvenient add-on to Kirby's artistic life. Here more than anywhere else on the record (except perhaps Jack and Roz's wounded, wounding 1989 interview with Gary Groth), the loving team dynamic of the Kirby marriage emerges as the backbone of Jack's life. Kirby the man is fleshed out as well here as anywhere, a significant achievement considering that panels can struggle to go as deep and detailed as prose. 041b061a72


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